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Start your journey of discovery through the English countryside and explore our collections. Uncover a world of amazing facts, surprising stories, mystery objects and powerful images. Whatever your interest in the countryside, there is something for you in the museum. We plan on adding more and more of it to these pages.

The Discover pages are where you can find carefully selected items from our collection, organised by themes. You can also explore our rich image collections and surprise yourself in the ‘Did You know?’ section.

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51 Voices ()

A Year On the Farm ()

Collecting Rural England ()

Digging Deeper - Ploughs ()

Digging Deeper – Open Store ()

Forces For Change ()

Making Rural England ()

Open Spaces Society ()

Our Country Lives ()

Shaping the Land ()

The Ladybird Gallery ()

Town and Country ()

Wagon Walk ()

Welcome Case ()

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Animals ()

Arts and crafts ()

Collecting ()

Colonialism ()

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Health nutrition and medicine ()

Historical era ()

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People ()

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About Britain

51 VOICES;TOWN AND COUNTRY;COUNTRYSIDE;

Strawcraft Symbols

51 VOICES;DIGGING DEEPER – OPEN STORE;ARTS AND CRAFTS;COUNTRYSIDE;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;

Festival of Punch

51 VOICES;COUNTRYSIDE;HISTORICAL ERA;

Fertile Soils

51 VOICES;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;WEATHER AND ENVIRONMENT;

Town and Country

51 VOICES;ARTS AND CRAFTS;COUNTRYSIDE;

Countryside Cartoons

51 VOICES;ARTS AND CRAFTS;COUNTRYSIDE;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;

Making Hurdles

51 VOICES;WAGON WALK;ANIMALS;ARTS AND CRAFTS;COUNTRYSIDE;

Making a Museum

51 VOICES;COLLECTING;COUNTRYSIDE;

Domestic Flowerpot

51 VOICES;DIGGING DEEPER – OPEN STORE;ARTS AND CRAFTS;COUNTRYSIDE;

Birds and Men

51 VOICES;ANIMALS;COUNTRYSIDE;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;WEATHER AND ENVIRONMENT;

Huge Wall-Hangings

51 VOICES;OUR COUNTRY LIVES;ARTS AND CRAFTS;COLONIALISM;COUNTRYSIDE;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;

Tropical Teaching

51 VOICES;COLONIALISM;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;HISTORICAL ERA;

Thatching tools

51 VOICES;MAKING RURAL ENGLAND;ARTS AND CRAFTS;COUNTRYSIDE;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;

Another Animal Farm

51 VOICES;ANIMALS;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;

Chicken in a Basket

51 VOICES;DIGGING DEEPER – OPEN STORE;ANIMALS;ARTS AND CRAFTS;COLLECTING;

Ploughs and Progress

51 VOICES;COLLECTING RURAL ENGLAND;COUNTRYSIDE;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;

Festival Landscapes

51 VOICES;COUNTRYSIDE;HISTORICAL ERA;

In Your Garden

51 VOICES;COUNTRYSIDE;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;HISTORICAL ERA;

Black Eyes and Lemonade

51 VOICES;ARTS AND CRAFTS;COLLECTING;COUNTRYSIDE;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;FOOD AND DRINK;

Biscuit Tin

51 VOICES;COUNTRYSIDE;FOOD AND DRINK;HISTORICAL ERA;LOCAL HISTORY;WAR AND CONFLICT;

Cotswold Tradition

51 VOICES;ARTS AND CRAFTS;COLLECTING;COUNTRYSIDE;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;LOCAL HISTORY;

Apple Store

51 VOICES;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;HISTORICAL ERA;

Sutton’s Seeds Sign

51 VOICES;COLLECTING;COLONIALISM;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;

‘Tabloid’ First Aid Kit

TOWN AND COUNTRY;HEALTH NUTRITION AND MEDICINE;

Women’s Institute

51 VOICES;ARTS AND CRAFTS;COUNTRYSIDE;LOCAL HISTORY;

Buildings Of England

51 VOICES;ARTS AND CRAFTS;COUNTRYSIDE;LOCAL HISTORY;

National Parks

51 VOICES;COUNTRYSIDE;

Great Inventions

51 VOICES;COUNTRYSIDE;HISTORICAL ERA;

Ration Book

51 VOICES;FOOD AND DRINK;HEALTH NUTRITION AND MEDICINE;WAR AND CONFLICT;

Elite Cow

FORCES FOR CHANGE;ANIMALS;COLLECTING;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;FOOD AND DRINK;

Sister Lavinia

COLLECTING RURAL ENGLAND;COLLECTING;COUNTRYSIDE;LOCAL HISTORY;PEOPLE;

Country Code

51 VOICES;OPEN SPACES SOCIETY;COUNTRYSIDE;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;

Farmers Weekly

51 VOICES;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;

Clockwork Tractor

51 VOICES;COLLECTING RURAL ENGLAND;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;

Landscape Leader

51 VOICES;COUNTRYSIDE;WEATHER AND ENVIRONMENT;

Farm Epic

51 VOICES;COUNTRYSIDE;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;

Scythe

A YEAR ON THE FARM;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;

Cider jar

A YEAR ON THE FARM;FOOD AND DRINK;

Barley fork

A YEAR ON THE FARM;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;

Obstetric Forceps

51 VOICES;TOWN AND COUNTRY;COUNTRYSIDE;HEALTH NUTRITION AND MEDICINE;

Our Beautiful Island

51 VOICES;COLLECTING;COUNTRYSIDE;

Death to Pests

51 VOICES;COLONIALISM;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;WAR AND CONFLICT;WEATHER AND ENVIRONMENT;

A Land

51 VOICES;COUNTRYSIDE;HISTORICAL ERA;PEOPLE;

The Country Year

51 VOICES;ANIMALS;ARTS AND CRAFTS;COUNTRYSIDE;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;

Groundnut Film

51 VOICES;COLONIALISM;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;

Horse Brass

51 VOICES;WAGON WALK;ANIMALS;COLLECTING;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;

Festival Guide

51 VOICES;HISTORICAL ERA;PEOPLE;

Milk Counter Pan

WELCOME CASE;FOOD AND DRINK;HEALTH NUTRITION AND MEDICINE;

The Hermitage

51 VOICES;ARTS AND CRAFTS;COLLECTING;

Splint Basket

WELCOME CASE;ARTS AND CRAFTS;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;

Tooth Extractor

TOWN AND COUNTRY;HEALTH NUTRITION AND MEDICINE;

Friendly Society Polehead

WELCOME CASE;COUNTRYSIDE;PEOPLE;

Wild Mammals Bulletin

51 VOICES;ANIMALS;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;

Canal hand bowl

WELCOME CASE;ARTS AND CRAFTS;TRANSPORT;

NUAW Banner

WELCOME CASE;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;

Lion and Unicorn

51 VOICES;ARTS AND CRAFTS;COUNTRYSIDE;

Festival Logo

51 VOICES;ARTS AND CRAFTS;HISTORICAL ERA;

Model pub

51 VOICES;DIGGING DEEPER – OPEN STORE;COLLECTING;COUNTRYSIDE;FOOD AND DRINK;

Sheep bell

51 VOICES;ANIMALS;ARTS AND CRAFTS;COLLECTING;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;

Model thresher

51 VOICES;COLLECTING;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;LOCAL HISTORY;

Gentle Harvester

A YEAR ON THE FARM;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;

King Alfred

OUR COUNTRY LIVES;ARTS AND CRAFTS;LOCAL HISTORY;

Steam Ploughing

DIGGING DEEPER - PLOUGHS;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;

Machinery 100 Years Ago

COLLECTING RURAL ENGLAND;COLLECTING;

Wellies

TOWN AND COUNTRY;COUNTRYSIDE;PEOPLE;WEATHER AND ENVIRONMENT;

Harvest Jug

A YEAR ON THE FARM;ARTS AND CRAFTS;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;FOOD AND DRINK;WEATHER AND ENVIRONMENT;

Salmon Trap

A YEAR ON THE FARM;ANIMALS;FOOD AND DRINK;HEALTH NUTRITION AND MEDICINE;

Shepherds Walking Stick

A YEAR ON THE FARM;ARTS AND CRAFTS;PEOPLE;

Picnic Basket

A YEAR ON THE FARM;COUNTRYSIDE;FOOD AND DRINK;

Mattress

TOWN AND COUNTRY;HEALTH NUTRITION AND MEDICINE;LOCAL HISTORY;

Man Trap

MAKING RURAL ENGLAND;COUNTRYSIDE;WAR AND CONFLICT;

Giant Teapot

51 VOICES;MAKING RURAL ENGLAND;ARTS AND CRAFTS;COLLECTING;COLONIALISM;FOOD AND DRINK;

PLASTER CAST HANDS

MAKING RURAL ENGLAND;COUNTRYSIDE;PEOPLE;

TURNWREST PLOUGH

COLLECTING RURAL ENGLAND;COLLECTING;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;

Ferguson Tractor

COLLECTING RURAL ENGLAND;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;

Womens Land Army Uniform

FORCES FOR CHANGE;HISTORICAL ERA;WAR AND CONFLICT;

Flail

FORCES FOR CHANGE;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;

Suttons Seeds Display Cabinet

FORCES FOR CHANGE;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;

Miller’s Wagon

51 VOICES;WAGON WALK;ANIMALS;FOOD AND DRINK;PEOPLE;TRANSPORT;

Wagoner’s Belt

A YEAR ON THE FARM;ARTS AND CRAFTS;FARMING AND AGRICULTURE;PEOPLE;

About Britain

51 Voices;Town and Country;Countryside;

Geoffrey Grigson (ed.), About Britain Guides, 1951
These books are from a set of thirteen travel guides published in parallel with the Festival of Britain. They were edited by poet, author, and naturalist Geoffrey Grigson. Grigson also wrote two volumes himself: West Country and Wessex. As with the examples shown here and other aspects of the Festival, the Guides divided the nation into regions—East Anglia, for example—rather seeking to be comprehensive and cover each county. The East Anglia image visible here was illustrated by the artist Barbara Jones. Like Grigson, local historian and landscape specialist W. G. Hoskins also penned two volumes: East Midlands and the Peak and Chilterns to the Black Country. Hoskins is best known for his influential book The Making of the English Landscape, which is a core text in the study of landscape and its development. Published only four years after these guides, it established the idea of landscape as a 'palimpsest', created and rewritten through layers of human activity. Grigson also contributed to the Festival of Britain in other ways. With the support of the Arts Council of Great Britain, he helped curate an official Festival exhibition in 1951 entitled Ten Decades, a review of British Taste, 1851–1951. This influential show featured work by many significant artists and was a significant milestone in bringing contemporary British work alongside that established artists. Many images, including these ones, were taken specially for 51 Voices by Laura Bennetto of Bennetto Photography. This item was added as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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51 Voices;

Town and Country;

Countryside;

Strawcraft Symbols

51 Voices;Digging Deeper – Open Store;Arts and crafts;Countryside;Farming and agriculture;

Fred Mizen, 'Corn Dolly' sculptures, 1951
Straw craftsman Fred Mizen made various sculptures for the Festival of Britain, including a large and much-celebrated Lion and Unicorn for the pavilion of the same name. As well as his sizeable designs, he also contributed a smaller series for the 'Country' pavilion. These were were displayed upstairs, tucked away from the main attractions of a building that also featured cutting-edge machinery, a massive merry-go-round artwork, and a huge, 46-metre-long wall-hanging. Mizen's work was nature and countryside-themed—a shepherd's crook, scythe, barley fork, hay rake, and bird table. There was also imagery referential to Britishness—a crown, heart, and anchor. The farm symbols acknowledged the agricultural origins of straw and rural roots of strawcraft skills, such as corn dolly making, thatching, and plaiting. The other icons reinforced ideas about sovereignty, stasis, and continuity. The smaller strawcraft pieces came to The MERL in 1952. A few years later  in 1954, they featured in a live BBC broadcast from the Museum, with several suspended from the porch of the building. Alongside other collections used in this context, they provided a suitable backdrop for a programme hosted by founding editor of The Archers, Godfrey Baseley. By this period decorative strawcraft was a folk revival of a craft that had been sidelined by changing attitudes, so it was apt that it found its niche at the heart of a Festival of mid-century modernity. Click here to read a poem by Obby Robinson created in response to Fred Mizen’s strawcraft, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. Curator of MERL Collections, Dr Ollie Douglas, explores corn dolly revivals and Mizen's Festival of Britain straw craft, as published in issue 101 of Selvedge magazine and shared with their kind permission. 51 Voices logo.
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51 Voices;

Digging Deeper – Open Store;

Arts and crafts;

Countryside;

Farming and agriculture;

Festival of Punch

51 Voices;Countryside;Historical era;

Punch, 'The Festival of Punch: 1851-1951', 30 April 1951
Punch, or the London Charivari was a long-running satirical magazine, which poked fun at contemporary society and culture. The cover of this issue offered an amusing take on the famous Festival of Britain logo, with Britannia's head replaced by the features of Punch. With its roots firmly in the mid-nineteenth century, it was perhaps no surprise that this special Festival edition featured content about the Great Exhibition of 1851, drawing comical comparisons between the two events, which occurred a century apart. An advertisement inside featured an image of people visiting the 1851 displays at Crystal Palace, declaring thanks to the razor company Gillette for having 'made the world clean-shaven'. A double-spread cartoon contrasted the formality, expansion, and infrastructure of the so-called 'Native Village - 1951' with its rustic 1851 equivalent. The message here was clear: the nineteenth century was all about maypole dancing, smocks, and horse-drawn carriages, and the twentieth century was defined by prefabs, construction, bus services, and queues. Another illustration offered a commentary on common misconceptions within American views of the British. This included references to hunting, shooting, and fishing, aristocratic lifestyles, early railway lines, green rolling hills, 'no trespass' signs, vernacular architecture, and different forms of farming. Many of these stereotypical components also found a place within the actual 'Country' pavilion at the Festival itself. This entry was added as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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51 Voices;

Countryside;

Historical era;

Fertile Soils

51 Voices;Farming and agriculture;Weather and environment;

Frank Newman Turner, Fertility Farming (London: Faber and Faber, 1951)
This book is one of a range of mid-century texts that introduced a wider readership to the emerging ideas of organic farming. Its author, F. Newman Turner, was a farmer and journalist who would later go on to work in herbal medicine. Fertility Farming owes its origins to another major figure in the British organic movement, Sir Albert Howard. Before his death in 1947, botanist and sustainable agriculturalist Howard urged Turner to write a book about the experience of introducing organic husbandry to his Somerset farm, Goosegreen. Turner completed the manuscript only after having tried and tested his methods. The result was a text that charted the story of his 'restoration of a dead farm' and his careful avoidance of what he called the 'snare' of the commercial science of modern agriculture. Building in turn on ideas that Howard and others had drawn from traditional Indian agriculture, Turner applied these principles to processes on his farm, from livestock to pasture, and tillage to harvest. It is his careful reintroduction of organic matter to his soils and his wholehearted enthusiasm for a ploughless future that resonates most today. Indeed, he concludes by looking to a future beset with the threat of 'eventual starvation' and makes a bold plea for us to be 'in imitation of nature rather than in battle against nature'. Click here to read a more detailed examination of this book by Tim Jerrome, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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51 Voices;

Farming and agriculture;

Weather and environment;

Town and Country

51 Voices;Arts and crafts;Countryside;

Clough Williams-Ellis, Town and Country Planning (British Council, 1951)
This pamphlet was the eighteenth in a series of booklets published under the auspices of the British Council. Called The Arts in Britain, these provided accessible summaries concerning different aspects of British cultural life, including architecture, art, music, drama, poetry, dance, film, design, and other forms of creative practice. This volume offered a survey of the role and importance of landscape planning. The British Council was formed during the interwar period to promote stronger cultural relations between the UK and other nations. This particular text came at a time of transition in relation to town and country planning debate, policy, and investment. The UK was in the midst of a significant phase of post-war reconstruction. In January 1951, bolstered by new social ideas, a new Ministry of Local Government and Planning was established. This was designed to merge controls concerning architectural expansion with other strategic functions concerning public health and governance. Questions of water, sewerage, and provision of open spaces were to be addressed alongside the drive for new housing. Clough Williams-Ellis, the author of this text, was a well-known architect and a regular voice in debates concerning rural conservation. His 1927 book, England and the Octopus, was a popular success and offered a powerful argument against the unchecked tentacles of urban expansion, which he claimed were stretching out and destroying the countryside. Development of his most famous project—the Italianate new town of Portmeirion, Wales—was also well underway by the time he wrote the British Council booklet. This entry was added as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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51 Voices;

Arts and crafts;

Countryside;

Countryside Cartoons

51 Voices;Arts and crafts;Countryside;Farming and agriculture;

Michael O'Connell, Diversity of British Farming designs, circa 1950
These seven cartoons by artist Michael O’Connell were scaled-up to create a stunning artwork for the Country pavilion at the Festival of Britain. The finished textile panels from this can be seen here. In order to develop his designs, O’Connell travelled around observing and sketching to inform his designs. This series of paintings was the result of those travels, intended as they were to represent the four nations of the UK and to chart and explore different regional topographies and types of farming. In both these cartoon designs and the finished textile artwork, Scottish and Welsh regional farming were squeezed together under the title ‘Upland Stock Farming’. This skewed geographic simplification was arguably emblematic of a wider attitude to the so-called Celtic fringe. In the decades that followed, a rising sense of marginalisation led to greater prominence and success for those arguing for devolution and independent powers. The cartoons not only provide a window into the before and after of the Festival but lead us to consider the ephemeral nature of some elements of artistic endeavour. As well as providing a home to a finished artwork based on these initial designs, Southbank also hosted other creative practice. This included some examples linked to other marginalised communities, not just from the Celtic fringe, but also from the wider Empire. For example, the Trinidadian All Steel Pan Orchestra (TASPO) attended the celebrations, becoming the first band of this kind to play anywhere in the UK. Click here to see all seven designs, which were photographed as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. Click here to see Reading All Steel Pan Orchestra play at The MERL, and to hear about surprising Reading-based legacies of the Festival of Britain, in a recording made as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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51 Voices;

Arts and crafts;

Countryside;

Farming and agriculture;

Making Hurdles

51 Voices;Wagon Walk;Animals;Arts and crafts;Countryside;

Hurdle maker's brake, circa 1951
This brake provided a frame on which to construct wattle hurdles from hazel rods. It is thought to have been displayed at the Festival of Britain. In the early 1950s, handmade hurdles were still in use for penning livestock but were becoming less common. Lightweight metal gates were growing in popularity in sheep farming circles, and indoor rearing meant traditional hurdles were also less needful for pig farming. The main Festival exhibits on London’s Southbank placed traditional craft in ‘The Country’ pavilion, alongside farming. Despite modern agricultural machinery, these worlds were depicted as traditional and interdependent. Wattles featured in an artistic depiction of rural life called ‘The Country Year.’ The image for March featured a lambing man surrounded by ewes and lambs penned in by hurdles. The Festival programme played a significant role in cementing the place of heritage skills in the popular imagination. During the late-twentieth century, British craft products became popular for aesthetic as well as functional reasons. As a consequence of these cultural shifts, handmade hazel wood hurdles have since become an increasingly common alternative to other forms of garden fencing and trellis. You are more likely to have seen them in garden centres than farmyards. This entry was added as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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51 Voices;

Wagon Walk;

Animals;

Arts and crafts;

Countryside;

Making a Museum

51 Voices;Collecting;Countryside;

John Higgs, Making a Museum (edited proof, 1951)
This draft, typewritten article details reflections on the formation of The MERL from one of its founders, the first Keeper, John Higgs. By his own admission, the Museum was destined to be 'strange by normal concepts' and geared towards gathering material to research the 'far-reaching changes' seen to have taken place in the countryside during the preceding decade. The opening of Higgs' short essay reads as a manifesto for an institution designed to 'throw light on the evolution of different methods', offering a linear and progressionist approach to agricultural development. He refers to the existing use of old equipment to teach, which until this moment had been held in an 'Agricultural Machinery Hall' already known by University students as 'The Museum'. Some of this vision remained unchanged—an expansive collection and an ambition to create public displays—and other aspects reveal that the Museum has taken another direction—he implied wagons were too large to acquire, for example. But the most significant departure is the degree to which the contextual microhistories Higgs saw as key to this project ultimately led us to think about 'progress' in a critical and far less progressionist way. Click here to read the full-text of Higgs' article. Watch this space for a response to this item, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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51 Voices;

Collecting;

Countryside;

Domestic Flowerpot

51 Voices;Digging Deeper – Open Store;Arts and crafts;Countryside;

Quentin Bell, Decorated plant pot, 1951
This pot was made by Quentin Bell, the acclaimed art historian, academic, writer, and potter. It was produced in 1951 and dedicated to a member of household staff at a sprawling Sussex farmhouse called Charleston. It was in this rural locale that the maker's parents—the painter Vanessa Bell and the critic Clive Bell—retreated each summer from 1916 onwards with fellow artist Duncan Grant, and a range of creative 'Bloomsbury set' celebrities. Alongside the 1951 date, the message 'GH from QB' is inscribed on the base of the pot. This not only confirms the maker—Quentin Bell—but also hints at the original intended recipient, Grace Higgens. At this point in her life Higgens was working as housekeeper at Charleston, having previously worked as a housemaid, cook, a nanny, and an artists' model. She lived there in Sussex with her husband and son, and would remain in service there until her retirement in 1971. She was a much loved member of the household and one whose role and personal connection with those she worked for tested the hierarchical boundaries of a life in service. The pot itself is a simple earthenware flowerpot, decorated with a rich blue glaze and yellow and white floral motifs. It perhaps alludes to the natural surroundings and environs of the rural setting for which it was intended. The piece itself is simple in character and reflects the combined influences of a fluid, relaxed form of mid-century modern creativity and the traditions of rural and rustic pottery. Read a fascinating account of this pot and those associated with it by Associate Professor Paddy Bullard, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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51 Voices;

Digging Deeper – Open Store;

Arts and crafts;

Countryside;

Birds and Men

51 Voices;Animals;Countryside;Farming and agriculture;Weather and environment;

Edward Max Nicholson, Birds and Men (London: Collins, 1951)
Published in 1951 and penned by conservationist Max Nicholson, Birds and Men was the seventeenth volume in the Collins New Naturalist series and the first of these influential texts to focus on birdlife. This iconic series is said to be the longest running of its kind, the first volume having been published in 1945. It encapsulated popular new approaches that would thrive in mid-century, post-war Britain, and with a readership eager to understand the natural world. The subtitle of this particular book—The Bird Life of British Towns, Villages, Gardens & Farmland—spoke of a landscape comprising urban and rural space, with wildlife living alongside humans in overlapping habitats. Nicholson argued powerfully that the future of wild bird populations was fraught and their lives had been fragmented by intensive farming and other practices. However, the richly illustrated book was still full of hope and potential, and heralded new approaches to bird ecology that remain relevant today. In the later twentieth century, Nicholson's distinguished career saw him play a part in helping to establish many of the most influential conservation organisations of the period. Bodies that benefitted from his drive and support included the British Trust for Ornithology, International Union for Conservation of Nature, World Wide Fund for Nature, International Institute for Environment and Development, and The Conservation Volunteers. Read a response to this book by nature writer Nicola Chester, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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51 Voices;

Animals;

Countryside;

Farming and agriculture;

Weather and environment;

Huge Wall-Hangings

51 Voices;Our Country Lives;Arts and crafts;Colonialism;Countryside;Farming and agriculture;

Michael O'Connell, Diversity of British Farming Wall-Hangings, 1951
This huge textile depicting Kent is one of nine sections—a key, an introductory panel, and seven landscapes—that formed a 46-metre long display in the Country Pavilion of the Festival of Britain. It was designed by artist Michael O'Connell and the panels made with the help of his assistants Iris and Betty Sheridan. The pieces were produced using special dyes, wax-resist techniques, and stitched fabric panels. The Kent panel was on display at The MERL from 2016 to 2021, when it was swapped with the Cheshire panel. Much of what we know about them is due to research by the late Jill Betts. During the 1990s she pieced together the story of their creation and installation at the Festival site. The story she would capture stopped with the Festival, but the continuing narrative of their use in other early displays is similarly fascinating. In July 1952, soon after arriving at The MERL, they served as backdrops for the Museum's trade stand at the Royal Agricultural Show in Devon. One of the series was sent on loan to York Castle Museum in 1955. The most intriguing, albeit incomplete, story of their post-London use emerged from papers held at The MERL. Immediately after they were removed from Southbank in 1951 and before their arrival at The MERL in mid-1952, the hangings went to Cape Town. There they were intended for use in Van Riebeck's Festival. This was a white supremacist celebration of early apartheid and of colonial South Africa. It remains unclear if the wall-hangings were actually ever used in Cape Town. If they were then they featured in one of the first major events to be publicly boycotted by resistance organisations. Read a conversation with Professor Leslie Witz to find out more about Van Riebeeck's Festival, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. Click here to read two poems by students from the University of Reading, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. Click here to watch Dr Ollie Douglas talking about this artwork, as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. Click here to access an old online exhibition about the wall-hangings. 51 Voices logo.
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51 Voices;

Our Country Lives;

Arts and crafts;

Colonialism;

Countryside;

Farming and agriculture;

Tropical Teaching

51 Voices;Colonialism;Farming and agriculture;Historical era;

Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture: Silver Jubilee 1951 (London: ICTA, 1951)
The Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture (ICTA) was founded in St. Augustine, Trinidad, in 1921. This booklet was published in 1951 to celebrate twenty five years since its establishment. Trinidad remained part of the British West Indies for the entire first quarter century of ICTA's existence. It was located in a colonial context, in a classical-style building, and designed to serve the farming needs of the British Empire by training men—predominantly white men—to work in colonial service. ICTA was granted its Royal Charter in 1926. That same year, Reading Extension College was granted its own Royal Charter, becoming the University of Reading. This booklet forms part of the library of The MERL, where it sits alongside many other texts concerning colonial subjects. These holdings are testament to connections between The MERL and agriculture across the British Empire. Today, the University of Reading's strengths in International Development and Global Development also stand as testament to these same links. From an initial intake of just thirteen students, by 1951 ICTA saw a fourfold increase in numbers. This was indicative of the rapid growth of agricultural extension activity from the interwar period through to the mid-twentieth century. ICTA became part of the University College of the West Indies in 1960. Trinidad and Tobago gained independence in 1962, and at this time University College also became independent. The imposing St. Augustine campus remains home to the Agriculture Faculty of the University of the West Indies, which celebrated its centenary in 2021. Click here to see and read the complete booklet (low quality PDF). Watch this space for a response to this booklet by Sarah Cardey, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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51 Voices;

Colonialism;

Farming and agriculture;

Historical era;

Thatching tools

51 Voices;Making Rural England;Arts and crafts;Countryside;Farming and agriculture;

Festival of Britain, Thatching tools, 1951
This set of tools was exhibited at the Festival of Britain, where it helped to tell the story of straw in the Country Pavilion. The display also included straw sculptures produced by celebrated maker Fred Mizen. His techniques were derived in part from the art of thatch finials— decorative flourishes designed to adorn a roof ridge, hayrick, or straw stack. The tools themselves were not destined for working use. After this brief moment in the limelight they were transferred to The MERL collection. Traditional heritage skills formed part of the wider Festival of Britain offer. The Living Traditions exhibition in Edinburgh showcased makers including weavers, woodcarvers, lace makers, and potters. On the Southbank site, only a stone's throw from the straw displays, blacksmith Thomas Haywood delivered live demonstrations. He would later complain of the terms of his appearance, which entailed long hours and, he later claimed, led to considerable loss of income. Thatching declined considerably in the twentieth century, especially following the Second World War. Inter-generational lines of skills transmission were broken, farmers no longer relied on thatch for barns or ricks, and combine harvesters impacted the availability of good straw. The continuing precarity of the profession is shown by its listing by the Heritage Crafts Association, though it remains active and vibrant for now. Click here to see an amazing film by Mark Hannant, showing Master Thatcher Nick Walker exploring these objects for the very first time (4:25 mins), as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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Another Animal Farm

51 Voices;Animals;Farming and agriculture;

Eileen Mayo, Animals on the Farm (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1951)
The images in this children’s book offered a vision of an old-fashioned and mixed farm economy, complete with heavy horses, poultry, cattle, goats, pigs, sheep, and other creatures. Along with the detailed text these images offered a nostalgic story of farming at a time when agriculture was undergoing significant changes. Sheep were shown being sheared with hand-powered machines and kept in pens made from traditional hurdles. This world was the creation of Eileen Mayo, a talented artist and designer who was skilled in a huge range of media. Alternating colour plates and monochrome illustrations offered a rich visual encyclopaedia. Although the text focused largely on unchanging aspects of farm life, the passage on heavy horses referred to their slow decline and to the creeping impact of tractors. In 1952, shortly after this book was published, Eileen Mayo moved to Australia. The book was number 84 in the Puffin Picture Book series. It followed on from a number of other rurally-themed volumes including at least one that addressed the impact of modernity head-on. Number 37 in the series was A History of The Countryside written and illustrated by Margaret and Alexander Potter, as published in 1944. It featured crawler tractors, wartime land reclamation, and the ribbon development of suburban sprawl. Watch this space to read a more detailed examination of this book by Special Collections Librarian Fiona Melhuish, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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Chicken in a Basket

51 Voices;Digging Deeper – Open Store;Animals;Arts and crafts;Collecting;

Poultry basket, Ose, 1945–1946
Mid-century craft expert Muriel Rose bought this poultry basket, or Ose, from Highland Home Industries in Edinburgh during the 1940s. It was one of many handmade items sourced by her on behalf of the British Council who at that time established a significant collection of rural craft objects. Much of this material was destined for an Exhibition of Rural Handicrafts, which toured Australia and New Zealand in 1946 and 1947. The baskets were originally designed to hold a hen. This type of basket was originally traditional to Kilmuir, Skye. Interest from Rose and others made it popular in wider craft circles. In 1951, a very similar ose basket was included in Living Traditions, an exhibition that formed part of Edinburgh’s contribution to the Festival of Britain. This prominent celebration led to popular use of such items as shopping baskets. After the style icon Bridget Bardot was seen using one their popularity rocketed, leading eventually to the form being copied in plastic and mass-produced. The ose basket has come a long way from its original place and purpose. Prominence in mid-century exhibitions and influential collections led to the transformation of these utilitarian tools into objects of fashion. Like many older forms, today’s makers continue to recreate ose baskets. They are now made throughout the UK and beyond. Alongside this British Council artefact, The MERL holds other ose-style baskets, including a much smaller example thought to have been made in Poland and intended for use by a child. Click here to find out more about Ose baskets from Greta Bertram, Curator of the Craft Study Centre, made as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. Watch this space for more details of maker Catherine Beaumont and her hands-on experience of making Ose baskets. 51 Voices logo.
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Ploughs and Progress

51 Voices;Collecting Rural England;Countryside;Farming and agriculture;

Set of model ploughs, Festival of Britain, 1951
These ploughs were part of a series of eight wooden models made for the Country Pavilion of the Festival of Britain. Six of the original set still survive. This section of the Festival focused largely on technical progress and there they were shown alongside the latest farm machinery to illustrate agricultural improvement. The post-war period was dominated by tractorisation, mechanisation, and the emergence of industrialised farming techniques. The choice of ploughing as a focal technology placed tillage at the heart of a story of agricultural change. However, with the establishment of the Soil Association in 1946, this was also a time when approaches focussed on soil health were starting to take hold. It is from these origins that many of today’s non-ploughing, ‘no-till’, and regenerative techniques began to emerge. The depiction of farm modernity on show at the Festival was echoed in new agriculture galleries at the Science Museum, which also opened in 1951. Here the plough was venerated in a similar way, through animated models, a visual art frieze, and plough-inspired furnishings. In this way, mid-century exhibitions of agriculture reinforced the dominant ideas of post-war agricultural science and policy but failed to reflect the full range of farming futures on offer. Read a response to these models from Collections Officer Madeleine Ding, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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Festival Landscapes

51 Voices;Countryside;Historical era;

Peter Shepheard, Landscape design sketchbook, 1951
This sketchbook belonged to architect, planner, and landscape architect Peter Shepheard and dates to January to March 1951. During this time he was working on final plans for the South Bank Exhibition site of the Festival of Britain. His contribution included designing garden-type zones in association with the main public spaces. He was also responsible for certain visible but inaccessible areas. He dubbed these ‘space left over in planning’ or ‘sloip’. Prior to employment on the Festival he gained experience of post-war reconstruction whilst working on the Greater London Plan and for the Ministry of Town and Country Planning in the late 1940s. Adding to an interest in nature that had been with him since childhood, this mix of rural and urban influences stood him in good stead for a metropolitan site intended to celebrate the wider British landscape. The sketchbook recalls Shepheard’s part in the Festival project, which saw him introduce structural herbaceous planting and make contributions to the built environment. It also features other quirks of his creative talent, including a page of bird drawings. He would go on to have an illustrious and celebrated career in architecture and landscape architecture, including teaching at a graduate level. He would also illustrate several books on birdlife, including The Book of Ducks, published in 1951, and Modern Gardens from 1953, which featured a section on the South Bank site. Click here for a more detailed discussion of the Shepheard sketchbook by Annabel Downs, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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In Your Garden

51 Voices;Countryside;Farming and agriculture;Historical era;

Vita Sackville-West, In Your Garden (London: Michael Joseph, 1951)
The writer and poet Vita Sackville-West was an influential voice in mid-century rural life. In 1939, the seeds of an idea began to germinate and she grew keen to establish a 'White Garden' in the grounds of her Sissinghurst home. These creative plans were interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. Gardening and horticultural skills were key factors in the drive for food security and to help people to supplement their diets during rationing. In 1944, just prior to the end of the war Sackville-West published a short history of the Women's Land Army, which emphasised the growing role of women in these vital areas of work. As volumes like In Your Garden would go on to reveal, women were playing an increasingly prominent role in gardening for pleasure as much as in gardening and growing for productivity. From 1946, Sackville-West wrote a regular newspaper column recording changes that she and her husband, Harold Nicolson, were making at Sissinghurst. In Your Garden emerged from these post-war writings. It charted seasonal change, made practical suggestions, and helped shape English gardening. In 1949, plans for her now famous 'White Garden' resurfaced, and its creation was shared publicly through Sackville-West's columns and books. The 'White Garden' was completed in 1950 and open to the public in time for the Festival of Britain. Read a response to this book by writer and producer JC Niala, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. Click here to read about a Takeover Day inspired by this book with our under-fives group Friday Fledglings, which formed part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.  
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Black Eyes and Lemonade

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Exhibition catalogue, Black Eyes and Lemonade, 1951
This catalogue listed the contents of a quietly influential exhibition held as part of the Festival of Britain. An eclectic range of items were assembled by artist and author Barbara Jones, the creative force behind the show. The displays made a powerful statement about the importance and vitality of ‘popular’ or ‘vernacular’ art. They highlighted the cultural value of everyday items and amateur-made things not ordinarily celebrated by museums or galleries. Jones lent material from her own collection and, along with her fellow curator Tom Ingram, travelled throughout the UK in a converted taxi cab to borrow and acquire further items. From decorative cakes and biscuits produced by Huntley & Palmer to corn dollies made by straw craftsman Fred Mizen, and materials to market Carter’s Seeds, the links to Reading, the wider craft community, and to other aspects of country life were there in abundance. The impact of the display was bolstered by Jones’ publication that same year of The Unsophisticated Arts, a book exploring the rich visual world of untrained artists and creative practitioners. In 1958, similar ideas came to the fore in The MERL, in the form of a temporary exhibition called English Popular Art curated by artist-designer duo Margaret Lambert and Enid Marx. Click here to find out more about a creative response to this item by artist and facilitator Jessica Starns, made as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. Click here to read a detailed response by University Museums and Special Collections Librarian, Connie Bettison, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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Biscuit Tin

51 Voices;Countryside;Food and drink;Historical era;Local history;War and conflict;

Biscuit tin, Huntley and Palmers, 1951–1952
This biscuit tin is part of the Huntley & Palmer Collection at Reading Museum. It features a watercolour of the historic Yarn Market at Dunster, Somerset. This slice of ‘olde England’ was much visited by holiday makers to the nearby seaside resort of Minehead prior to the Second World War. After a decade of austerity and loss, this design was probably tapping into a nostalgia for life before the war. Huntley & Palmers biscuits are one of the 'three Bs' for which Reading was famous, the others being beer from Simonds brewery and bulbs from Suttons Seeds. The company started life in 1822 as a small bakery founded by Thomas Huntley. George Palmer, a distant Quaker cousin, entered into partnership with Huntley in 1841. By 1900 Huntley & Palmers had become the world's largest biscuit maker. At its peak the company employed over 5,000 people. As a result, Reading became known as the 'biscuit town'. Even the town's football club was nicknamed the 'Biscuitmen'. The factory remained a major employer in Reading until 1976 when all production moved to Liverpool. The company was famous for innovative and decorative biscuit tins like this example. They were made in Reading by its sister company Huntley, Boorne & Stevens. Read six unique poems responding to biscuit tins, written by Charlotte Johnson, Ruth Gavin, and Nicola and Clive Tipler, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. Read a detailed response to this tin by Museum Manager of Reading Museum, Matthew Williams, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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Cotswold Tradition

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Exhibition catalogue, The Cotswold Tradition, 1951
This catalogue reveals that some of the many objects given to The MERL by writer H. J. Massingham in early 1951 were almost immediately sent on loan to an exhibition at Cirencester Park. This display was part of a significant regional strand of the Festival of Britain and was focused largely on the dominant Cotswold themes of wool, stone, and agriculture, sometimes setting these against a national and global backdrop to emphasise their significance. Indeed, one problematic passage celebrates the export of Witney blankets to colonial contexts. What the catalogue did not reveal was how substantial the exhibition actually was. When Massingham's objects featured in The MERL's first temporary display in the University Library in Reading they were laid out on table tops in simple groups. At Cirencester Park the approach to display was markedly different. Far from a simple, local effort, it featured loans, was designed professionally, and was overseen by a dedicated (if rather conflicted) committee. The net result was that this handful of objects featured in the display from May to September of 1951. They formed part of what sounds by all accounts to have been a striking exhibition, complete with quirky visual statements such as a giant wicker hand, and largescale artefactual installations including a medieval tomb of carved stone. It was hailed by some as the best contribution to the Festival programme outside of London. Read a conversation with Dr Caroline Morris which reveals more of the amazing history of this display, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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Apple Store

51 Voices;Farming and agriculture;Historical era;

Colour film, Storage of Apples, 1951
This film was made in 1951, and was sponsored and distributed by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. It was designed as an instructional film to inform producers of methods of apple storage, as a way of meeting demand out of season. Footage covers apple pickers, winter orchards, storage methods, correct handling and careful picking techniques, packing stations, grading machinery, and even the removal of rotten fruit. It forms part of a film library compiled by the Ministry of Agriculture. This comprises some 288 16mm 'reel to reel' films. Many were commissioned directly by the Ministry. Others, like this one, were produced by external organisations before being deposited with the Ministry. They were made to influence producers, farmers, and the wider public. We know surprisingly little about how and where they were shown. For example, it may be that they were lent out for community screenings in village halls or perhaps officials presented them to invited audiences. The Museum has worked hard to preserve, digitise, and share holdings from this collection more widely. The cataloguing and transfer of many of the Ministry films has advanced significantly in recent years, as a consequence of initiatives such as the FIELD project. These activities have also enabled The MERL to contribute to international schemes like the European Rural History Film Association, which will serve to help us better understand the variety, use, purpose, and distribution of agricultural and rural films. You can watch the film online here, using the University of Reading Virtual Reading Room. Click here to read reflections on film collections by Principal Archivist, Caroline Gould, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. You can view a short compilation of footage from other Ministry of Agriculture films here. 51 Voices logo.
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Sutton’s Seeds Sign

51 Voices;Collecting;Colonialism;Farming and agriculture;

Sutton & Sons Ltd, Indian branch office sign, circa 1950s
In the nineteenth century, Reading was home to several major industries. Sutton & Sons Ltd grew from a local shop into a global firm. In 1912 they established an India branch in Russell Street, Calcutta, from which they developed and grew seeds for both the UK and the Indian markets. The diversity and complexity of the Indian markets are reflected in the need for three languages—English, Hindi, and Bengali—on the company sign. Indian independence came in 1947 but colonial structures persisted. Suttons & Sons (India) did not break away from the parent company until 1969 and the last British Managing Director of the Calcutta branch retired as late as 1972. He received this sign as a leaving gift. The company underwent significant changes in the later twentieth century, shifting focus towards domestic sales and away from big agriculture. It still trades partly out of Kolkata today but also has a Delhi-based subsidiary called SuttInd Seeds. The Russell Street office no longer seems to have such a central role. The politics behind seed licensing and plant distribution play a significant part in Indian agriculture and commerce. These systems have deeper pasts, rooted in colonial and mercantile power structures, as well as in multinational corporations that continue to exert influence over farmers and producers. Although the Indian and British companies that trade under the Sutton's name today do not now have a major share in these markets, their parent company did. Read insights from Surajit Sarkar of Ambedkar University, Delhi, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices, and timed to coincide with the 19th Congress of the International Association of Agricultural Museums, AIMA 2021. Click here to read a poem about this object by a student from The Langley Academy, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices, The sign features in this online exhibition about colonial India, which has been developed with the help of students from the Department of History at the University of Reading. 51 Voices logo.
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‘Tabloid’ First Aid Kit

Town and Country;Health nutrition and medicine;

This first aid kit was made by the pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome, which produced a wide range of specialised kits - for explorers, the army and civilians, of which this is one. The Burroughs Wellcome & Company was founded in 1880, in London, by the American pharmacists Henry Wellcome and Silas Burroughs. The company produced a wide range of compressed pharmaceutical products which were sold under a variety of brand names. The manufacture of these products required special machinery which provided scientifically formulated medicines in standard dosages convenient for packaging. The most important of these brand names was 'Tabloid', a word invented by Henry Wellcome and registered as a trademark in 1884. As well as medicines, the 'Tabloid' brand name was applied to various products such as photographic chemicals, first aid kits and tea. This model of First Aid kit, No. 715, was used by Alcock and Brown on their first transatlantic non-stop flight on 14-15 June 1919. This specific first aid kit, meanwhile, was used by Georgina Pullen of Andover, Hampshire and Hambleden, Buckinghamshire, during her work as a rural nurse and midwife in 1904-17. This kit includes:
  • Scissors and tweezers.
  • 'Vaporole' aromatic ammonia – also known as smelling salts.
  • 'Tabloid' adhesive plaster.
  • 'Tabloid' absorbent cotton wool.
  • 'Tabloid' bandage – a triangular bandage.
  • 'Soloid' products in tin, a range of drugs and nasal preparations.
Kit 715 included:
  • Boric Acid -  used as a mild antiseptic.
  • Bismuth Salicylate – an antacid medication used to treat temporary discomforts such as diarrhoea, indigestion, heartburn and nausea.
  • Chlorate of Potash - to soothe inflammation of the throat and mouth.
  • Soda Mint – peppermint oil and sodium bicarbonate reduces stomach acid. It is used as an antacid to treat heartburn, indigestion, and upset stomach. Sodium bicarbonate is a very quick-acting antacid.
  • Surgical sponge – used to absorb blood from wounds and operation sites.
  • Court plaster in envelope - isinglass was a transparent jelly prepared from the dried swimming bladder of a fish from the Black and Caspian Seas. It consisted mostly of gelatin. This, when spread onto silk, was called court plaster. It was used as a dressing material. It was named court plaster because it was used by upper class ladies to cover skin blemishes.
  • Carron oil - made from linseed oil and lime water for burns and scalds.
  • Castor oil – used as a natural laxative.
  • Protective skin – it is not clear what this is but it might be a collodion (pyroxylin in ether and alcohol). It was applied to surgical wounds, cuts, abrasions, and chilblains. When the solvents evaporate the pyroxylin forms a protective “skin” over the wound.
  • 'Tabloid' first aid booklet.
Written by MERL volunteer Gillian Bandy.
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Town and Country;

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Women’s Institute

51 Voices;Arts and crafts;Countryside;Local history;

Pinkneys Green WI, Women’s Institute Banner, circa 1951
The National Federation of Women's Institutes was established in 1915. Since that time it has come to play a significant role in the social, cultural, political, and creative life of rural England. This striking textile banner was hand-stitched by members of the Pinkneys Green WI in around 1951, shortly after the establishment of their local Institute in 1949. In the aftermath of the Second World War the WI was to thrive and expand, with many new institutes being founded and with the decade following 1950 becoming its most popular period. The WI is well-known for its interest in handicrafts, home cookery, and other domestic hobbies and pastimes. Collective projects such as these branch banners, institute scrapbooks, or other ways of marking and representing the identity of local communities at particular moments were a common feature of WI practice. 1951 also gave rise to another significant example of WI-linked creativity: an enormous needlework mural called The Country Wife. This was shown at the Festival of Britain and is now cared for by the National Needlework Archive. The Pinkneys Green banner is one of several examples now housed at The MERL, ranging in date from the 1920s to the 1950s. These collective artworks stand as testament to the inventiveness and artistry of their makers. They offer a means of marking and celebrating the role that the WI has played since the early twentieth century in supporting equality in education, social improvements, and, more recently, programmes of environmental awareness and responsibility. Read a detailed exploration of this banner and of the history of the Women's Institute links by Dr Rosemary Shirley, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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Buildings Of England

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Nikolaus Pevsner, Cornwall (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1951)
Published in 1951, Cornwall was the first of The Buildings of England series. It would eventually cover the whole country and reach a total of 46 volumes, standing as a classic and widely-acclaimed interpretation of the the architectural and cultural history of the counties. The series drew to a close in 1974, a year marked by local government reform and by the revision of county boundaries. The books reflected the pre-1974 ceremonial or administrative divisions. Cornwall was researched and written by the art and architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, who also served as author and co-author of the later volumes. Its purpose echoed that of other guides from the interwar and mid-century periods. H.V. Morton’s In Search of England (1927) was a popular example. Its success inspired many to produce similar works aimed at discerning tourists or ramblers. Pevsner's main competitor was the Shell Guide to the Countryside, as published between 1934 and 1984. These took a county-by-county approach but were lighter in depth and detail than Pevsner’s exhaustive works. Pevsner's guides are popular to this day, not least because much of the built environment that they explore, critique, and celebrate still stands. Their encyclopedic approach was bolstered and perfected with the support of research assistants and by his wife, Lola, who accompanied him on research trips until her death in 1963. Although often somewhat scathing in his reading of particular structures and rather brutal in his choice of words, The Buildings of England remains an oft-cited and familiar reference series, as well as a source of entertainment. They now play their own part in helping to shape and define the English countryside. Read a response from Reading Room Supervisor and Pevsner enthusiast, Adam Lines, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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National Parks

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Ministry of Town and Country Planning, National Parks and Access to the Countryside (London: HMSO, 1950)
This booklet was published in 1950 in advance of the establishment of the first National Parks in 1951. It indicated where the proposed parks were to be located when they came into being. Through a combination of striking wood cut images of rural scenes and detailed text, it told the story of hard-fought rights for landscape protection and countryside access, the prevention of the enclosure of common land, and the extraordinary establishment of these iconic protected national landscapes. The idea of National Parks was not rooted in England but stemmed initially from the unsuccessful “Access to Mountains (Scotland) Bill" put forward by James Bryce MP in 1884. Discussion continued over subsequent years and decades. The National Trust was incorporated in 1895, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England was formed in 1925, and protests in the form of mass trespasses emerged during the interwar period. Finally, legislation confirmed that National Parks could be established, ensuring that landscapes would be protected and access to them would be enshrined in law. Illustrations on the cover of the booklet hinted at the diverse ways in which these newly protected spaces were to be used. Hills were suggestive of walking and rambling, silhouettes of deer highlighted the natural world, climbers ascended a rockface, and a pair of cyclists settled down to camp. A stone monument emphasised ancient landscapes and period farmhouses spoke to the more recent human past. Elsewhere, the farmed and managed countryside was evidenced through the depictions of a windmill, hayricks, oast houses, and livestock. Read a response to this booklet by Landscape Architect Mark Loxton, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices.
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Great Inventions

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Marie Neurath and Joseph Lauwerys, The first great inventions (Max Parrish, 1951)
This children's book was designed using a graphic tool called the isotype to tell the story of human innovations. Isotypes are a style of visual device used to communicate complex ideas in clear and simple ways. The illustrator of this volume, Marie Neurath, helped pioneer this approach to book design. Many of the technologies explored in its pages were linked in some way to histories of rural and agricultural life. These same subjects remain commonplace in children's books to this day. The book featured a double-page spread on 'inventions that changed the countryside', which charted power sources, exploring the move from wind, first to water and steam, and later to petrol and electricity. These different ways of powering infrastructure had a major part in how people farmed the countryside in the past. Marie Neurath's careful illustrations were key to communicating the significance and visual difference of these technological shifts. Elsewhere the book also featured animal-powered transports such as carts and wagons, as well as ploughs and other rural machinery. As a whole it helped to reveal how much innovation stems from needs that arise in contexts of farming, or when dealing with how to manage large landscapes. The double-page spread on lamps and lighting hinted at a very linear way of thinking about technical change. This was not dissimilar to the way in which collectors amassed and arranged objects to tell stories of change. Read a more detailed exploration of this book by Professor Sue Walker, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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Ration Book

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Ministry of Food, Ration book and coupons, 1950–1951
The early-1950s date of this ration book helps show the longevity of rationing during and after the Second World War. This policy began in 1940 and continued in some form for 14 years. Inside the book can be found coupons and further papers linked to food, clothes, tea, soap, and personal points. The latter were used for the purchase of sweets. Rationing helped ensure that the UK population was able to access basic resources at a time when maritime blockades and post-war shortages meant not all things were in ready supply. In the early war years the owner of this book—Barbara Wood—was evacuated from her urban home in Bristol. She has shared stories of these wartime experiences in education sessions and worksheets at The MERL. She used this particular book during the period 1950 to 1951, by which time she was living in Bristol again. As well as her name and address, the cover featured her registration number, a Food Office code, and the ration book serial number. She was registered as a vegetarian and, as these items reveal, was entitled to extra allowances of cheese in place of meat rations. Mid-century rationing policies were based on the latest nutritional thinking. As a consequence of a variety of factors, including the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK exit from the European Union, and concerns about food security, concerns about access to goods are still on the agenda today. As we discover more about nutritional science and health and meet new challenges in global food distribution, it seems likely that comparable ideas and approaches may not solely be a things of the past. 51 Voices logo.
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Elite Cow

Forces For Change;Animals;Collecting;Farming and agriculture;Food and drink;

Waddingtons, Grade Up to Elite Cow board game, 1986
This extraordinary game saw players attempt to 'grade up' their imaginary dairy cattle to pedigree status via Monopoly-style gameplay. They navigated the board collecting semen to improve their herd and in doing so it was hoped that real farmers might feel encouraged to focus on livestock breeding. The game was sponsored by different agents in the dairy sector, including semen suppliers, insurance companies, animal feed producers, and banks. The proceeds supported the Young Members Association of the British Friesian Cattle Society. As logos on the board reveal, one secondary purpose of Grade Up was marketing. In this respect it echoed the purpose of other games of the period. For example, Agrihazard was as a promotional tool for Ford tractors with rules that pitted would-be farmers against their neighbours, market forces, and inclement weather. Such games also helped a new generation and the wider public appreciate the precarity of the industry. Grade Up was not a major success at the time but has grown in popularity in recent years. The MERL has it on display in its galleries, makes jokes about it, and lends it to other exhibitions. Vintage gamers play it and others share it with friends. In this way it continues to fulfil its other intended purpose of promoting understanding. As the modern dairy sector grapples with many challenges and changes it faces, perhaps this game can still play an important role. We certainly think so! We are grateful to the late Charles Stewart and his family whose generosity has allowed us to develop new activity linked to Grade Up. Charles graduated from the University of Reading in 1968 with a degree in Agriculture. He went on to become co-creator of this amazing game, as well as an enthusiastic supporter of The MERL. Watch this space for a creative response to the board game from artist Adam Stead of Dairy Lexicon and Project FEED.
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Sister Lavinia

Collecting Rural England;Collecting;Countryside;Local history;People;

Henry Owen Vaughan, Photographs of Miss Smith's Museum, 1937–1943
These photographs were taken in the village of East Hendred during the late-1930s and early-1940s by the Reading-based amateur photographer Henry Owen Vaughan. They show a private home and museum at Downside House, which belonged to Lavinia Smith, sometimes referred to as 'Miss Lavinia' or 'Sister Lavinia'. Following her death in 1944, her rural artefacts formed one of the main founding collections acquired by The MERL when it was established in 1951. Lavinia Smith was born in the United States and educated at Wellesley College where she became familiar with classical history. She worked for a time as as a teacher and also as private secretary to the Bishop of Gloucester. In retirement she moved to East Hendred. She began to notice artefacts associated with different village trades and would later claim that these reminded her of Greek epigrams, which often described skilled people with reference to their tools. She was inspired to start gathering these objects and using them to educate and record the history of her adopted home. These collections sit at the very core of The MERL's early holdings and have always formed a major part of its displays. However, as we have discovered more about their extraordinary collector we have also found evidence to suggest that she held anti-Semitic views. It can be hard to discuss the flaws of foundational figures like Sister Lavinia whose legacy was fundamental to the early establishment of the Museum. However, although it may not be relevant to the formation of her collection, we must acknowledge and reject her racist worldview. Read a detailed exploration of Lavinia Smith and her collection by MERL Volunteer Kaye Gough, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. Click here to find out more about how Lavinia Smith's collection inspired artist Heather McAteer to develop 'Belongings', a collaborative artwork made as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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Collecting Rural England;

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Local history;

People;

Country Code

51 Voices;Open Spaces Society;Countryside;Farming and agriculture;

National Parks Commission, The Country Code (London: HMSO, 1951)
This Country Code booklet was produced in 1951 as part of a suite of policy accompanying the creation of National Parks under the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. Its publication was heralded by one member of the House of Lords at the time as ‘the best fourpenny-worth of common sense he had ever read’. It has since become an established part of British culture and has long been used as a familiar tool to help manage visitor behaviour in countryside places. The origins of the rules and ideas it presents can be traced back to earlier codes, events, and campaigns focused on countryside access. Perhaps most notably amongst these was the Kinder Scout 'mass trespass' of 1932. Debates regarding the use of rural spaces have emerged throughout the course of the twentieth century as urban and working people have demanded ever greater rights of access to private and public land. An official and legal recognition of the 'right to roam' did not happen for another five decades. The Code itself has been revised and reimagined many times since this first edition, including as recently as 2021. The emphasis has shifted in subtle ways over time and now leans more towards encouraging and facilitating access, as well as protecting the natural environment, as much as it focuses on safeguarding the assets of landowners and farmers. In a period when access to green open spaces has arguably never been so high on our public agenda, the Code remains an influential force in helping to shape how we define rural spaces and govern the ways in which they can be accessed or used. Read a more detailed examination of this booklet by Professor Gavin Parker, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. We hope to share the full booklet here in due course. 51 Voices logo.
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Farming and agriculture;

Farmers Weekly

51 Voices;Farming and agriculture;

The Farmers Weekly, 'Britain's Festival: Special', 4 May 1951
The magazine Farmers Weekly was first published in 1934 and is still running today. It has long played a vital role in keeping the UK's farming community up to speed with the latest developments in technology, policy, and practice. At the same time, it has served to chart and capture changes to agriculture and has been a vocal advocate for the sector. This particular issue was published in parallel with the launch of the Festival of Britain in May 1951 and, as well as offering a snapshot of farming in mid-century Britain, it helps show how this important event was presented to farmers. During the late-1940s and early-1950s, the agricultural community experienced a combination of developments and barriers. The Agriculture Act of 1947 brought the extension of subsidies and the tightening of rationing, whilst the bad winter of that same year as well as animal health challenges around this time wrought havoc with livelihoods. By 1950 arguments were emerging about the degree to which farmers were 'feather-bedded' and therefore had it too easy. All of this was set against a turbulent global economy that was still recalibrating in the aftermath of the Second World War. At the heart of this issue from 4 May 1951 was a double-page spread on how farming had changed between the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Festival of Britain in 1951. The wider special feature helped show how 1951 was a moment for farming to be seen as a modern industry and a public good, and how the lives of hard-working people in the countryside could be recognised on the national stage. Key elements of the Festival programme were celebrated here, including London's Country Pavilion, a showcase 'farm and factory' in Northern Ireland, and a Festival farm in North Wales. Read a detailed exploration written in response to this issue by Professor John Martin, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. Click here to read the full issue from 4 May 1951—courtesy and copyright Farmers Weekly (large file may be slow to load) Read a Farmers Weekly article by Tim Relf, all about the 51 Voices project—courtesy and copyright Farmers Weekly Click here to explore HaikuMoo, a dairy cattle arts resource created in response to this issue by artist Adam Stead.  Click here to explore Queer Lands, a collaborative artwork created by artist Oren Shoesmith and others in response to this issue. 51 Voices logo.
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Clockwork Tractor

51 Voices;Collecting Rural England;Farming and agriculture;

Ferguson, Demonstration model, circa 1949–1951
This model tractor was designed to demonstrate how the innovative three-point linkage technology on Ferguson tractors worked. This unique mechanism featured on the iconic TE-20 tractor or 'little grey Fergie' and made for a vehicle that was more stable and adaptable. Models like this enabled Ferguson agents, technicians, and distributors to show potential customers the advantage of the 'Ferguson System' without need for a full-scale demonstration. The models were introduced in around 1949 and a second batch may have followed in 1951. This particular example was used by a company called 'Tractors Bath'. It would have been removed from its box, which doubled as a demonstration track. The clockwork mechanism inside propelled the tractor forward, revealing the difference between older-style ploughs and those designed to operate with the new linkage. The same model was partially overpainted, probably by a member of staff. This was likely an attempt to make it look like the later Massey Ferguson 35, a tractor introduced in 1957. The 'Ferguson System' was extremely popular during this period. In 1951 it was advertised in the guide to the South Bank exhibition of the Festival of Britain and Ferguson machinery featured in the Festival's  'Country Pavilion'. The vehicle was also heavily promoted overseas and versions of the demonstration model are known to have been used in India, Australia, South Africa, the USA, and elsewhere. Read a more detailed examination of this object by Stuart Gibbard, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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Landscape Leader

51 Voices;Countryside;Weather and environment;

Announcement, ‘The New President – Miss Brenda Colvin’, 1951
In 1951 Brenda Colvin became the first female president of the Institute of Landscape Architects. This extract from the Journal of the Institute of Landscape Architects dates to November of that year. It includes the announcement of her leadership and a summary of her contributions to the sector up to that date, followed by the text of her presidential address. Colvin was born in India in 1897 and trained in various capacities in the early-twentieth century before establishing her own landscape architecture practice in 1922. Her pre-Second World War work was influenced by arts and crafts style. Following the War and into the 1950s she began to take on larger landscape commissions including public gardens, reservoirs, power stations, and new town projects. This leaning towards infrastructural and local governmental works is reflected in the short biographical description given alongside her portrait. She continued designing tirelessly into her 70s and worked hard to make sure that both her practice and her longer-term projects were handed on to an experienced and skilled successor, Hal Moggridge. Some schemes were on such a scale that at least one was still being actively implemented in 2005, over 20 years after her death in 1981. This temporal legacy neatly reflected Colvin's enduring ethos that the designing of landscapes was about giving something to future generations that they could both enjoy and also continue to care for. Read a more detailed exploration of this selection by landscape architect Hal Moggridge, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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Farm Epic

51 Voices;Countryside;Farming and agriculture;

Anthony Bernard Lees, Farm Epic (circa 1951)
This small booklet provides an account of mid-century farm mechanisation using the patented 'Ferguson System'. This equipment was widely promoted during the early 1950s, when it was displayed at the Festival of Britain and advertised prominently in the Southbank exhibition guide. The 'System' comprised the TE20 tractor with its famed three-point-linkage, as well as a series of purpose-built tools. This short volume was essentially an advertisement for Ferguson, set against the backdrop of a reprinted study drawn from Farmer and Stockbreeder magazine. Popularly known as the ‘little grey Fergie’, the TE20 tractor plays a core role in the story told by author Anthony Bernard Lees. His report looks back to the early 1940s and brings the narrative up to date, exploring the impact of investing in mechanisation on a small Cotswold farm. In 1951, Lees also released a longer book called Farming Machinery, which was published by Faber and Faber. Much farming journalism and advice of the time was closely interconnected with the machinery industry. The silhouette of farmer and tractor on the cover of Farm Epic harks back to the Second World War and to wartime portrayal of farming as heroic and urgent work. Ferguson tractors were incredibly influential during the post-war period and represent a familiar touchstone for many people whose lives have been touched by later-twentieth-century agriculture. They even featured in episodes of that great farm radio epic, The Archers, the first national episodes of which were broadcast by the BBC in 1951. Read The Archers actor Tim Bentinck's epic farm memories of Ferguson tractors, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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Scythe

A Year On the Farm;Farming and agriculture;

Scythes were used to manually cut crops or grass at harvest time. They replaced sickles and bagging hooks which required the user to repeatedly bend down low to cut the crops.  Scythes themselves have now been largely been replaced - firstly by horse-drawn and more recently tractor machinery and then combine harvesters, but they are still used in some parts of Europe and Asia. The scythe still remained in use even after the introduction of machines because the first machines, still needed the field to be opened up by clearing an area to give the mechanical mower room to start. The scythe was also very useful for cutting in the awkward corners of a field that machinery could not access. Using a scythe is a skilled activity with the large, curved blade swung through the crop to cut it. An experienced reaper could reap up to 2 acres of wheat in a day. The blade would need to be kept very sharp so a sharpening stone or whetstone would be carried, and the blade would need to be regularly sharpened. In Western Europe scythes have long been associated with the Grim Reaper. Death has often been depicted as an animated skeleton since the time of the Black Death. The skeleton, usually shown carrying a scythe, was said to collect /reap the souls of the recently dead. The donor of this object was a Mrs Monger who donated a collection of tools which had belonged to her father, George Ernest Brown, and grandfather, Charles Lesley Brown. The Browns were a well-known family of shop keepers in Bramley, Hampshire. The 1911 census shows their occupation as grocer and farmer. This scythe was probably made by the village blacksmith Alfred Willis. He had a reputation for taking old farrier’s rasps and turning them into edged tools. Willis was described as the last manufacturer of hand-forged agricultural edge tools in central Southern England. Written by MERL volunteer John.
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Cider jar

A Year On the Farm;Food and drink;

Before mechanisation, harvesting was hard manual work and often farms provided food and drink for all the workers who worked long hours in the fields. Typically, labourers worked from 5am till dusk, but were compensated by extra pay at harvest. They could double their wages at harvest time, and there was the possibility of a bonus payment as well. In addition, a midday meal was usually provided, plus all the beer or cider needed to keep going through a hot day. At the peak of harvest, it was not unknown for farmers to allocate a gallon of cider per labourer, with possibly ale in addition. This is a stoneware jar, made by the Stockbridge Pottery Co. Ltd.in the mid 1940s at Burton in Lonsdale, North Yorkshire, with a basketwork cover. A cider jar was for carrying the cider to the fields for the harvesters to drink. Stoneware is pottery that has been fired at a high temperature until vitrified and impervious to liquid. It does not require a glaze as it is nonporous, so when a glaze is used, it serves a purely decorative function. The use of basketwork to protect jars and other fragile objects dates back thousands of years to at least Ancient Egypt. At its peak in the 1850s, the Burton in Lonsdale pottery industry had 11 working potteries. Today there are no potteries left, the last (Stockbridge) having ceased production in 1944, just after this jar was produced. The practice of making payments partially in alcohol to farm workers was halted in Britain about the time of World War 1 and it is probable that this particular 1940s cider jar was never used in practice to actually take cider into the harvest fields.  However, the practice continued in other countries until much more recently. In South Africa the Dop System (Dop being Afrikaans for alcohol), was used in wine farms especially in the Western Cape and continued into the second half of the 20th century. Farm workers would have their wages supplemented by cheap wine, which encouraged alcoholism among the workers. The practice was finally largely wiped out by the end of the century, but legacy problems of alcoholism remained. This cider jar was part of a collection taken by the British Council to Australia and New Zealand to demonstrate British craft products shortly after the end of the Second World War. It was one of several hundred objects purchased by The MERL from this collection in the early 1960s. Written by MERL volunteer John.
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A Year On the Farm;

Food and drink;

Barley fork

A Year On the Farm;Farming and agriculture;

This is a three-pronged barley fork made of ash. It was used for 'pooking' - turning over mown barley as it lay in 'windrows' (rows) and stacking it into sheaves. This fork is over 100 years old and probably closer to 200 years old – made before iron was used widely in farm tools. It was 'cultured' in the hedgerow with a young ash sapling being trained into the desired trident shape, a process that would have taken about ten years. Although barley forks can sometimes have only two prongs, the use of a third, central prong at an angle to the other two prongs, was more efficient as the fork could be pushed along the ground into the cut barley and it would gather up the barley in the “pocket” between the three prongs. The gathered barley would then be turned over and released or stacked into a sheath. More usually a wooden three-pronged barley fork would have been made from a suitable forked branch with a wooden central prong nailed between them at an angle. More recent barley forks have metal tips on the wooden prongs or prongs made completely from metal. This fork was presented to the Agricultural Machinery Department, Reading University in January 1941 by Mr. Dudley to whom it was given by the late Mr. W. D. Hollis. Mr Hollis stated that it had been found in the rafters of an old Hampshire barn. He was Managing Director of the Leckford Estates, and was appointed to the Advisory Subcommittee on Barley for the Institute of Brewing in 1938. Leckford Estate has been owned by John Lewis/Waitrose since 1929. The Leckford Estate consists of 2,800 acres and includes farming and food production activities providing products for Waitrose supermarkets. Written by MERL volunteer John.
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Obstetric Forceps

51 Voices;Town and Country;Countryside;Health nutrition and medicine;

Stainless steel obstetric forceps, 1950s
These obstetric forceps are among a handful of artefacts on loan to The MERL from the Berkshire Medical History Centre, the wider collection of which is housed at the Royal Berkshire Hospital. The forceps are part of a set used by a General Practice doctor in the mid-twentieth century. Like other doctors of the period, this GP would have attended home births and kept forceps to hand in case of difficult births. These forceps are made from stainless steel, meaning they are of a type introduced during the interwar period. Although we know this particular set was in use in the 1950s, such equipment was not limited to this period. Obstetric forceps were first introduced in France and have been in active use in England since the sixteenth century. The basic design has not changed very much over the years. The two interlocking pieces are designed to be carefully inserted and then joined to help grip the baby and guide it from the birth canal. The same 1950s period when these forceps were in use coincided with a post-Second World War period baby boom. The generation born at this time have often been referred to as 'baby boomers'. This period was also marked by the early years of the National Health Service, which had been formed in 1948. This new service brought health visitors, midwives, and GP services to the countryside as well as the town. Read a fascinating exploration of obstetric forceps by our fantastic volunteer Gillian, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. Click here to find out about an amazing creative response to these forceps from artist Beatty Hallas and families near and far, as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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Health nutrition and medicine;

Our Beautiful Island

51 Voices;Collecting;Countryside;

Tower Press, Our Beautiful Island jigsaw puzzle, circa 1951
Subtitled 'A Cottage in Somerset', this jigsaw puzzle epitomises the kind of 'chocolate box' representation of rural England that we see presented in many different areas of popular culture. This is a very particular way of depicting the countryside as a rural idyll—timeless, nostalgic, and happy. This jigsaw puzzle was one of a series of four produced by Tower Press. The other three had images of 'Saint Michael's Mount', 'The Fishing Harbour', and 'Old English Thatch'. It is likely that the cottage shown on this image was (and perhaps still is) a real building. Giving a precise date for this puzzle would be a challenge if it were not for two flyers found inside the box. One of these pays reference to the 'topicality' and 'up-to-the-minute ideas' in Tower Press puzzles and the other mentions the 'King and the pageantry of the Festival'. This latter comment is a reference to the 1951 Festival of Britain, of which George VI and Queen Elizabeth were patrons. In addition, the puzzle series itself echoes the celebratory theme of 'Land', central to Festival displays and programming. As such, it seems likely the puzzle dates to 1951 or very shortly thereafter. The puzzle is one of over 300 kindly donated by collector Julie Peverett. All of the puzzles she collected followed rural themes and many featured country scenes similar to this. Careful analysis of different cottages shown on puzzles in her collection reveals that many of the same thatched, rustic-looking, real-life buildings were depicted again and again. Like repeated use of the same locations as film sets, use of the same views on jigsaw puzzles helped reinforce messages about the past, and about what rural spaces and places should be like. Read a detailed exploration of this jigsaw puzzle by Dr Alex Arnall, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. Click here to read a poem responding to this jigsaw puzzle by Tim Relf, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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Death to Pests

51 Voices;Colonialism;Farming and agriculture;War and conflict;Weather and environment;

Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Death to Pests poster, 1951
This poster was issued by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. It was printed for H. M. Stationary Office by J. Howitt and Son Ltd, Nottingham, and released in 1951. It was intended to encourage British growers to combat common vegetable pests. This postwar period was still characterised by food shortages and rationing. Crop protection was considered a vital part of the national effort. Other incentives and Government support were provided to farmers and food producers at this time. The poster used imagery designed deliberately to evoke wartime ideas and a spirit of collective action. The figure depicted at the top wore a steel helmet and held a type of spray gun that was common in crop protection at this time. Such apparatus had also been used in military lice control campaigns. The impression was of an urgent call to action, vital for wider national security. The language used—of 'destroying' and stopping 'invaders'—purposefully echoed the sentiments of propaganda during the Second World War. Although inclusive of some artificial interventions, for the most part this poster recommended natural and traditional treatments. Agriculture was on the cusp of using many more synthetic insecticides and far more harmful means of pest management. Many such treatments were used in colonial or military contexts first and later found a market in domestic farming and horticulture. Such treatments would grow rapidly in tandem with the slow emergence of fringe organic approaches. The latter would not become mainstream until many decades later. Read a more detailed examination of this poster by Dr Sabine Clarke, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. Click here to see a brilliant creative response to this poster from illustrator Maisy Inston and pupils from Reading Girls School, as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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Weather and environment;

A Land

51 Voices;Countryside;Historical era;People;

Jacquetta Hawkes, A Land (London: Cresset Press, 1951)
This book was published just one month after the opening of the Festival of Britain. Its author, Jacquetta Hawkes, was a significant figure in mid-twentieth-century archaeology. In the same year she was also feted for her role as convener of the Festival's People of Britain pavilion. Her book and Festival contribution both characterised the British people as a product of a deeply-grounded relationship with how the land had been shaped. In effect, it rooted the contemporary population by relating them to the material past. The overarching narrative was one of migration, with successive incomers bringing new ways of life. The earliest hunters were followed by Celtic farmer warriors, and then in turn by Roman occupation, Anglo-Saxon deforestation, the arrival of Christianity, Norse and Danish invaders, and finally by Norman conquest. As the guide to Hawkes' Festival displays put it: 'relics of all this past are now part of our island—tools, weapons, ornaments, the dead still buried in the soil, Stonehenge, great tombs of the New Stone Age, the hill forts of the Iron Age Celts, the churches of the Saxons and the Normans—they are part of Britain.' Although there were many women archaeologists in the 1950s, men held most of the paid positions. Hawkes' prominent role in the Festival perhaps offered a glimpse of a more inclusive world. However, the real story of Britain in 1951 and of its landscapes and cultures, was also one of influences not yet acknowledged in our shared heritage. Even the creative flair of Henry Moore, whose illustrations adorned the pages of A Land, did not give voice to these absent stories. The idea that successive migrations from Europe were the lifeblood of the modern nation was already out of step with the dismantling of Empire and the changing population of a post-war, post-Windrush Britain. Read a more detailed examination of this book and its 1951 links by Dr Amara Thornton, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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The Country Year

51 Voices;Animals;Arts and crafts;Countryside;Farming and agriculture;

Barry Evans and William Kempster, Designs for The Country Year, 1951
The MERL holds five of these preparatory artworks, originally part of a wider set. The series was reproduced at a larger scale in a 'merry-go-round' structure called The Country Year. This sat between exhibits focused on Country Life and Rural Crafts in the Country Pavilion of the 1951 Festival of Britain. The full set comprised 12 different panels depicting life in the countryside. Artists Barry Evans and William Kempster also produced work for the Dome of Discovery. The original panels included one for each month of the year and were as follows: hurdle-making (January); cultivating (February); lambing (March); stock-rearing (April); marketing (May); haymaking (June); village cricket (July); harvesting (August); Young Farmers rally (September); potato-lifting (October); ploughing (November); field sports (December). The five preparatory artworks held at The MERL include designs for lambing, haymaking, harvesting, potato-lifting, and ploughing. After the Festival came to an end the displays were broken up and sold or sent on to suitable venues. The large artworks from The Country Year were among a range of materials transferred to the newly formed Museum of English Rural Life. They were put immediately to work in the Museum's trade stand at the Royal Agricultural Show at Newton Abbot but were subsequently lost and their whereabouts remains unknown.  These cartoon designs were given to the Museum a few years ago and offer a tantalizing glimpse of what the lost set were like. Read a detailed examination of these artworks written by Curator of University Art Collections, Dr Naomi Lebens, as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. Click here to find out about an amazing creative response to these artworks from artist Lisa-Marie Gibbs and the community at Downshire House, as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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Groundnut Film

51 Voices;Colonialism;Farming and agriculture;

Colour film, The Groundnut Scheme at Kongwa, Tanganyika, 1948
The East Africa Groundnut Scheme was a disastrous attempt by the British Government to cultivate enormous tracts of land in Tanganyika (present-day Tanzania). Work commenced in 1947 and was abandoned in January 1951. This short film forms part of the archive of agricultural engineering firm Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies and captures the project whilst it was underway. The film was probably made to record the involvement of Ransomes and other companies. The goal of the Scheme was to grow peanuts to solve cooking oil shortages in Britain and to create work in Tanganyika to reduce rural depopulation. Politicians pushed for mechanisation before the trials led by chief scientist Hugh Bunting were complete. Despite massive investment the land and climate were not suitable and the machinery could not cope. Bunting would become one of the Scheme’s greatest critics. He later moved to Reading where he set up the first course in Agricultural Extension. In the 1940s an agricultural specialist in Reading called John Higgs studied various farm projects in Africa, including this one. Higgs started work as the first Keeper of The MERL in the same month that the Groundnut Scheme was abandoned. The Museum would go on to collect English material and served in part as a model for farm development at home and overseas. However, much like the Tanganyika Scheme, this approach failed to account for non-European cultures, environments, or needs. You can watch the film online here, using the University of Reading Virtual Reading Room. Read some reflections on the Groundnut Scheme from PhD researcher Atenchong Talleh Nkobou, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. You can visit an online exhibition about the Scheme here, developed with the help of students from the Department of History at the University of Reading. 51 Voices logo.
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Horse Brass

51 Voices;Wagon Walk;Animals;Collecting;Farming and agriculture;

Armac Brassworks, Festival of Britain horse brass, 1951
This horse brass is in the shape of the Festival of Britain logo designed by Abram Games. It was one of many popular items sold to commemorate the event, from tea caddy spoons to teapots, badges to biscuit tins. Brasses like this were originally made to adorn harness worn by heavy horses in agricultural and industrial contexts. In the context of the Festival, such mementoes provided visitors with a slice of Britain's past. In reminding audiences of the interwar dependence on draught power, these objects also served to highlight the progress shown by the state of the art and tractor-based farm machinery on display. Horse brasses also help tell different stories of change. The use of horse brasses as decorations for harness became common from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. The upscaled manufacture of brasses by larger foundries marked the impact of industrialisation. Some of their products were adorned with references to royalty, serving to reinforce social hierarchy. Other images such as moons and stars were thought by some to represent 'survivals' of superstitious symbols used by earlier generations or by migrant communities to protect animals against harm. These popular objects now adorn country pub interiors, are synonymous with a particular nostalgic and romantic sense of our rural past, and have largely transformed from horse decorations into popular collectibles. Indeed, this particular brass was purchased for the Museum at the dispersal sale of a significant private collection of rural objects. This echoes the origins of The MERL collection itself where the majority of acquisitions in 1951 stemmed from two large private collections, one from rural writer H. J. Massingham and the other having belonged to the late Sister Lavinia Smith. Read a more detailed examination of this collection object by PhD Student Madison Johnson, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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Festival Guide

51 Voices;Historical era;People;

Ian Cox, The South Bank Exhibition: A Guide to the Story It Tells (London: HMSO, 1951)
For many visitors who flocked to the Festival of Britain, this souvenir guide book provided a lasting reminder of the key highlights of this national celebration. Adorned with the striking Festival logo designed by Abram Games, the pages inside revealed routes through the site's 'continuous story' and summaries of each themed area. The focus on 'Land' and 'People' was communicated powerfully through text and photographs, which along with a series of maps revealed the 'way to go round' and reminded readers of Britain's global reach and national story. The original inspiration for the event was the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Festival of Britain adopted a similar approach, favouring narratives of progress throughout the Festival Guide. Directions for visitors often echoed this same sense of technical change, and many sections traced linear histories of specific aspects of human activity, life, or work. In each directional plan, key artworks or exhibits were sketched into the design, offering a three-dimensional hint of what to expect. From tinned peas to major infrastructure, 64 pages of advertisements at the front and the back of this generous booklet offered a snapshot of social, cultural, domestic, and industrial life in mid-century Britain. Some of these promotions utilised imagery that was unashamedly military or colonial, and others referenced the Great Exhibition of 1851. Although most rural references throughout were nostalgic and inward-looking, one tractor advert brought the global challenge of 'hunger and poverty' to the fore. Read a more detailed reappraisal of this guidebook by Festival expert Dr Harriet Atkinson, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.  
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People;

Milk Counter Pan

Welcome Case;Food and drink;Health nutrition and medicine;

Before refrigeration was widespread, this pan would have been used to hold milk which prospective customers could taste and buy. Counter pans were part of a reformation in the milk trade, as purchasing milk previously carried an element of risk (it was often contaminated or watered down). New milk shops had cows out the back to show the milk was fresh, and counter pans on display to convince customers it was not watered down. Therefore, this pan sought to help improve and advertise the reputation of honest dairies. This particular pan was created by Dairy Outfit Co. Ltd of London, which provided a whole range of items for the hygienic running of a dairy. It was used by Davey & Sons, a dairy firm in Brentwood (Essex). The dairy was demolished in the 1960s to make space for a Tesco, and in its place is now a Wetherspoons named ‘the Dairyman’. Please note that we intend to add a higher quality image of the pan in the near future.
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Welcome Case;

Food and drink;

Health nutrition and medicine;

The Hermitage

51 Voices;Arts and crafts;Collecting;

Thomas Hennell, Drawing of the Hermitage, 1939
This drawing shows the interior of a hut that the interwar writer H. J. Massingham had built in the orchard of his home 'Reddings', in Long Crendon, Buckinghamshire. The object collection seen stored in this hut was donated by him to The MERL in 1951. The hut was called 'The Hermitage' after a garden structure belonging to eighteenth-century naturalist Gilbert White. Massingham acquired his private collection of rural artefacts whilst researching and planning a book called Country Relics. This celebration of the hand tools, trades, and crafts of rural England was published in 1939. It was illustrated with numerous drawings by Thomas Hennell, the creator of this picture. At the start of the book, a different Hennell drawing showed a gardener pushing a wheelbarrow past 'The Hermitage'. The same figure can be seen here, just visible through the back window of the hut. The remainder of the text was illustrated throughout with images of tools, craftspeople, places, and old rural characters. Thomas Hennell grew up in the countryside. In the early 1930s, prior to his collaboration with H. J. Massingham, he suffered a mental breakdown. He was well-acquainted with other rural artists of the mid-twentieth century, including Edward Bawden, who encouraged him to write a book about his breakdown. Following this and after his work on various Massingham books, he went on to serve as a war artist during the Second World War. One of his duties involved recording wartime farming and rural craft. He died in service in Java in 1945. His work has gained greater prominence in recent years. Read a more detailed examination of this collection object by former Keeper of the MERL, Dr Roy Brigdenwritten as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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51 Voices;

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Splint Basket

Welcome Case;Arts and crafts;Farming and agriculture;

These splint baskets were highly popular in North Devon before World War 2. They were used for a wide variety of purposes, such as feeding cattle, and carrying apples and potatoes. This specific basket would not have used in the field. Instead, it was made and sold by Jack Rowsell, who made around 25 - 50 of these per year. He learnt the skill from his father, a farm worker from Uplowman, and believed himself to be one of the last traditional splint basket makers. The MERL interviewed him when the basket was purchased. Splint basket making was not only traditional to Devon. Splint basket-making was a skill mastered by the Wabanaki Native American people of Maine, with an organization and efficiency which arguably surpassed the process in Europe. In 1900, a census suggested that two thirds of Penobscot people primarily made their living from making and selling baskets, and making splint baskets was an integral social aspect of communities. Click here to view blogs relating to the Stakeholders project, which enhanced the MERL's knowledge of its basket collection as well as commissioning new baskets to enter the collection.
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Welcome Case;

Arts and crafts;

Farming and agriculture;

Tooth Extractor

Town and Country;Health nutrition and medicine;

The tooth key, or extractor,  is a most primitive device, invented in the 17th century, for extracting teeth - the claw is placed on the inside of tooth and the device is then rotated, using the outside part of the gum (often badly traumatised in the process). Proper dentistry only started to become widely available to the poor from the late 19th century, and would have been unattainable in rural areas until well into the twentieth century, so GPs would often have been called upon to extract teeth, probably the only treatment available at the time anyway.  By the end of the 19th century, the introduction of forceps, designed by (later Sir) John Tomes, rendered the tooth key mostly obsolete. The key could have been used by an apothecary, dentist or a pharmacist, who often performed extractions and made dentures until the early twentieth century, or some lay person such as a blacksmith. It is likely that in reality a village blacksmith or farrier would acquire a considerable degree of skill in extracting teeth; although they lacked any specialist dental equipment, they used pliers. Blacksmiths continued extracting teeth into the late nineteenth century and still do so in some parts of the world today. Treating tooth-ache in the 19th century could be a gruesome business. Pain would be relieved, it was said, by driving a nail into the tooth until it bled, and then hammering the nail into a tree. The pain was then transferred to the tree. To prevent tooth-ache, a well-tried method was to tie a dead mole around the neck! Text written by MERL volunteer Gillian Bandy, with help from Richard Havelock of the Berkshire Medical Heritage Centre.
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Town and Country;

Health nutrition and medicine;

Friendly Society Polehead

Welcome Case;Countryside;People;

Likely created around 1800, this polehead belonged to the Patriotic Order of Oddfellows. The Order was a ‘Friendly Society’ which were initially formed to provide insurance in the case of sickness or death before government legislation improved in this area. The growth of Friendly Societies was a response to the Poor Law Amendment Act which placed responsibility for the poor in the hands of Boards of Guardians. The Societies focused on brotherhood and togetherness in order to prevent their members from being consigned to workhouses. For example, in the village of Burton, the Oddfellows doubled their membership from 1837-1838, which was around the time workhouses were established. Though membership did bring significant benefit to members, the expense required was a burden to many. By 1889 it was required that each child cost £6 to insure, whereas the burial of a child cost no more than £3. Insignia and regalia, such as this polehead, were essential to Friendly Societies. They were a core element of the frequent marches the Societies undertook. The Oddfellows were also well known for their ceremonies, in which the poleheads designated the status of various members. This particular polehead, named the 'Heart in Hand', was used in Lower Bourne. It belonged to the Grand Warden of the Lodge, whose role it was to mediate in any disputes, as well as regulating and carrying out internal arrangements. The Heart in Hand symbolizes that any act of charity or kindness must be accompanied by good intentions and emotions; it is the symbol of friendship. Though many Friendly Societies died out after the National Insurance Act of 1911,  the Oddfellows still exist today and seek to care for their members’ financial wellbeing.
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Welcome Case;

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People;

Wild Mammals Bulletin

51 Voices;Animals;Farming and agriculture;

F. Howard Lancum, Wild Mammals and the Land (London: HMSO, 1951)
This booklet was Bulletin 150 from a series produced by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Fisheries (MAFF) during the 1940s and 1950s. These publications offered advice to farmers on management of land and livestock, and sometimes nature. Echoing this latter focus, Bulletin 140 (1948) had explored the topic of Wild Birds and the Land. Wild Mammals was illustrated with striking images of animals common to British farmland. The booklet sought to balance concerns about pest control (and damage to crops, land, and produce) with more sympathetic perspectives on wildlife. This was a period when modern approaches to farming were making the industry increasingly harmful to the environment. The idea of 'land' was important. A similar concept led to 'duties of good estate management and good husbandry' being incorporated into the 1947 Agriculture Act. 'Land' also provided a thematic backbone for the 1951 Festival of Britain and played a role in powerful new ideas about rural access. This volume was not among the items transferred when the Museum took receipt of the former MAFF Library. It was purchased in 2020 to add to this collection. Read a more detailed examination of this collection object by MERL Fellow, Professor Karen Sayer, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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51 Voices;

Animals;

Farming and agriculture;

Canal hand bowl

Welcome Case;Arts and crafts;Transport;

This hand bowl, known also as a dipper, was painted by L. B. Faulkner of Canal Wharf Works at Linslade, at the workshop of the canal carrier. These sorts of painted utensils for use on canals were known as ‘bargee ware’. The bowl would have been used on a narrow boat to take water from the canal. It was then part of the British Council Collection which toured Australia and New Zealand after the Second World War to demonstrate traditional British crafts. The MERL purchased the collection in two parts, in 1960 and 1961. The hand bowl was priced at 16 shillings and 6 pence. Up until the late 20th century, it was widely rumoured that canal folk were the descendants of Roma gypsies. Decorative paintwork, such as the roses seen on this object, were central to this narrative as they are often associated with gypsy designs. However, there is no genetic evidence to support this. It is much more likely that canal folk were 'navvies' from construction gangs as well as itinerant labourers (including farm labourers) who saw the work as an opportunity for a guaranteed high wage. Canal trade flourished after the majority of British canals were established between 1770 and 1800, but declined in importance once freight trains became more widespread.
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Welcome Case;

Arts and crafts;

Transport;

NUAW Banner

Welcome Case;Farming and agriculture;

This was the first banner of the NUAW (National Union of Agricultural Workers) and was initially used in Norfolk. The banner was presented to the Union by Mrs Bridges Adams, a Londoner who became interested in farm workers and the Union’s activities. According to Messrs Tutills, the banner firm who repaired it sometime before 1961, it was designed by Walter Crane. The NUAW was the successor to Joseph Arch's National Agricultural Labourer's Union, and it fought for improved wages for agricultural workers. Mostly notably, the Great Strike of 1923 reversed the decline in agricultural wages after World War 1. The union was based in Norfolk but attracted support from around the country. This banner would have been frequently used in their annual marches and demonstrations. Senior members of the NUAW were often given the honour of wielding the banner, but the responsibility was also auctioned off to raise funds for the Union. The phrase on the banner was the motto of the Union. Once the banner was no longer in use, it was handed to Tom Higdon who ran the Strike School in Burston. After Tom Higdon’s death, the banner was acquired on permanent loan from the School in December 1961. It was presented by the Union’s president, Edwin Gooch. For further details on the Union's activities and its existence in the wider context of rural protest throughout the years, click here to see one of our online exhibitions. Click here for information on our archive holdings for the Union.
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Welcome Case;

Farming and agriculture;

Lion and Unicorn

51 Voices;Arts and crafts;Countryside;

John Tarlton, Fred Mizen with Lion and Unicorn sculptures, 1951
These photographs by John Tarlton show celebrated straw craftsman Fred Mizen beside sculptures that he made for the Lion and the Unicorn pavilion at the Festival of Britain. These artworks welcomed visitors to a space devoted to the intangible qualities of Britishness, giving form to symbols of 'national character'. They referenced the union of England and Scotland. The lion was seen to represent 'realism and strength' while the unicorn referred to 'fantasy, independence and imagination.' Straw craft like this was a blend of several traditions, including corn dolly making, the creation of thatch finials, and cottage industries that produced plaited straw objects. Sadly, these lion and unicorn pieces do not survive and were reputedly destroyed by mice. However, Mizen also made a number of smaller pieces for the Country pavilion at the Festival, and these form part of The MERL collection. The Museum also holds other examples of his work. The renowned countryside photographer John Tarlton was from Essex and, although he also worked elsewhere, some of his most striking work was taken in the county that was his home. These images were taken in Great Bardfield, in the Braintree district of Essex, where Mizen lived and worked. The village came to prominence in the 1950s when it was home to a number of significant artists, including Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious, Mizen himself, and many others. Read a more detailed examination of this collection object by 'Building Connections' Collections Researcher, Nicola Minney, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. Click here to read a poem by Obby Robinson created in response to Fred Mizen’s strawcraft, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. Curator of MERL Collections, Dr Ollie Douglas, explores corn dolly revivals and Mizen's Festival of Britain straw craft, as published in issue 101 of Selvedge magazine and shared with their kind permission. 51 Voices logo.
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51 Voices;

Arts and crafts;

Countryside;

Festival Logo

51 Voices;Arts and crafts;Historical era;

Michael O’Connell, Festival of Britain logo wall-hanging, circa 1951
In 1948, the graphic designer Abram Games won a competition to create a logo for the Festival of Britain. His successful design featured Britannia, bunting, union jack colours, and a compass shape. It combined national pride and the idea of a seafaring superpower with the homely feel of a village fete. It has been reproduced here by another significant creative contributor to the Festival, the artist Michael O'Connell. O'Connell produced a series of hangings for the Festival of Britain. It is not clear whether this piece was originally intended for use in the Festival or whether it was a test piece produced around the same time. O'Connell's textile work was created using resist dye techniques and he worked with a studio team that included two young women, Betty and Iris Sheridan. During the Second World War, Games completed many designs for the War Office. In contrast with his more jingoistic Festival logo, recurrent themes of labour, food security, and social justice run through his wider work. The positive imagery of his 'Grow Your Own Food' (1942) poster differs from the brutal realism of some later pieces. Harsh but honest depictions, such as 'Give Clothing for Liberated Jewry' (1945-1946) or 'Freedom from Hunger' (1960), both pre-date and post-date his celebratory work for the Festival. His iconic logo design has recently been reimagined yet again, this time by graphic designer Richard Littler, in his 'Festival of Brexit Britain' poster. Read a more detailed examination of this collection object by Associate Director - Curatorial and Public Engagement, Isabel Hughes, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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51 Voices;

Arts and crafts;

Historical era;

Model pub

51 Voices;Digging Deeper – Open Store;Collecting;Countryside;Food and drink;

Danbury Mint, Model pub from The Archers radio serial
The long-running BBC radio serial The Archers was first broadcast nationally on 1 January 1951, the same day that very first objects were accessioned into The MERL collection. Designed as a way to communicate the latest farming techniques to the agricultural community, it told the story of one farming family within the complex and changing social world of a fictional English village called Ambridge. Although the original inspiration for the series has been a point of contention in recent years, The Bull pub depicted here was based on a real public house called The Bull Inn, which can still be found in Inkberrow, Worcestershire. The creator of The Archers, Godfrey Baseley, is said to have been a customer there. It was also the main location for the only known film of The Archers cast in character, Supper with The Archers. This 1963 film was a promotional film about milk. The forward-looking gaze of The Archers contrasts with the backwards-looking interests of museums like The MERL. Over the years, the series has inspired others to use radio drama as a way to communicate change. Examples of comparable programmes have been established in many places, including Afghanistan and the Republic of Rwanda. Read a more detailed examination of this collection object by Director of The MERL, Kate Arnold-Forster, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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51 Voices;

Digging Deeper – Open Store;

Collecting;

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Food and drink;

Sheep bell

51 Voices;Animals;Arts and crafts;Collecting;Farming and agriculture;

Whitechapel Bell Foundry, Sheep bell used as theatre prop, 1950s

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry closed in 2017, after more than four centuries of continuous trade, and 250 at the same site. At around the same time they made this bell they also cast a special bell for the 1951 Festival of Britain. The closure of the Foundry highlights the precarious state of heritage crafts. In recent years, the challenges facing this sector have been charted and recorded by the Heritage Crafts Association, which publishes a listing of endangered crafts.

In addition to broader cultural challenges, competition from modern manufacturing, the impact of global trade, and changes to consumer choices, today’s craft makers and manufacturers are also suffering from the economic impact of the global pandemic. Since its foundation, The MERL has worked hard to champion rural skills and industries that still involve handmade processes. Objects like this bell help reveal the incredible skill and ingenuity that goes into making things using traditional processes.

This bell was used in a performance of Shakespeare’s As You Like It staged by Bernard Miles at the Mermaid Theatre the 1950s. He established the Theatre in a barn-like structure in his London garden in 1951. The bell has also been used in other creative contexts. More recently its chime was recorded in The MERL garden by local sound and knitwear artist Felicity Ford. She used it in chorus with the sounds made by other sheep bells from The MERL collection to inspire a community workshop called ‘Knit a Song of Sheepbells’ (the sound of this particular bell appears at 1:20).

Read a more detailed examination of this collection object by Associate Director - Archive Services, Guy Baxter, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. Click here to read three poems about this object by students from The Langley Academy, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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51 Voices;

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Farming and agriculture;

Model thresher

51 Voices;Collecting;Farming and agriculture;Local history;

Barrett, Exall & Andrewes, Model threshing machine, 1847
This is a scale demonstration model of a type of four-horse-powered threshing machine, used after harvest to separate the grains from the stalks of cereal crops. This object was the second item to be listed as part of The MERL collection. It was given by Reading Museum to the University of Reading's Faculty of Agriculture, and later transferred to the Museum at the time when it was established in January 1951. The Museum's first Keeper, John Higgs, taught in the Faculty of Agriculture. In 1851, exactly one hundred years before the model became part of The MERL collection, Barrett, Exall & Andrewes exhibited this same type of thresher at the Great Exhibition. The model would have been used to promote machinery made at their ironworks in Katesgrove Lane, Reading. Fast forward a century and, in the same year the model became a founding part of The MERL, the Great Exhibition was commemorated and celebrated as part of the Festival of Britain. As well as connecting to powerful stories of display, promotion, and education, the model thresher also helps tell a story of rural unrest. Threshing machines similar to this formed the focus of rural protests in the early-nineteenth century. These Swing Riots saw rural labourers rise up against machines and landowners who they believed were denying them opportunities to work by mechanising agricultural processes. These same events and technologies had links to colonial histories. Read a more detailed examination of this collection object by Curator of MERL Collections, Dr Ollie Douglas, written as part of The MERL's 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. Click here to see this object in an online exhibition about Rural Protest, developed by Tim Jerrome. Click here to read poems about this object by students from The Langley Academy, click here to read a poem about this object by the writer Nicola Chester, or click below to hear her recite. Read about a Swing Riots ballad composed by volunteer Jeremy Jones, or click below to hear him sing. 51 Voices logo.
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51 Voices;

Collecting;

Farming and agriculture;

Local history;

Gentle Harvester

A Year On the Farm;Farming and agriculture;

When placed on a long pole this fruit picker extended the user’s reach. They could then retrieve apples, pears or plums without bruising them. The ingenious design was devised by William Penn Ltd, a company that offered solutions to some of life’s most pressing challenges, such as the ‘awl-you-need’ leather stitcher and ‘so-easy’ seed sower.  
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A Year On the Farm;

Farming and agriculture;

King Alfred

Our Country Lives;Arts and crafts;Local history;

If you think this figure has a regal air about him, you would not be wrong. This is a straw 'sculpture' of the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred. Originally, the figure had a wooden sword in one hand and a straw scroll in the other, representing both the warrior and the scholar. It is actually one of three figures made by master thatcher Jesse Maycock for the annual University College ball, Oxford, in 1961. One figure was a seated King Alfred, while the other was William Archdeacon of Durham, the founder of the College in 1247. Jesse created King Alfred using the same techniques involved in making a thatched roof, where straw or reeds are used protect the top of a building.
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Our Country Lives;

Arts and crafts;

Local history;

Steam Ploughing

Digging Deeper - Ploughs;Farming and agriculture;

Born in Wiltshire into a Quaker family, John Fowler (1826-1864) became one of Britain's most successful agricultural engineers and invented steam ploughing. Fowler was concerned with the cost of manual labour needed when cultivating land. In the 1850s he came up with the idea of using steam power instead. His method was to set a steam engine at both ends of a field, which between them would draw the plough across by cable. Fowler exported his 'double-engine' across the world. However, as steam ploughing machinery was too expensive for most farmers, much was done by contractors. These teams often comprised four men and a boy who lived and travelled together in a van containing all the equipment. This photo from the Eric Guy Collection shows steam ploughing in action. It taken in Hertfordshire around 1930.
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Digging Deeper - Ploughs;

Farming and agriculture;

Machinery 100 Years Ago

Collecting Rural England;Collecting;

At the Royal Agricultural Show in Cambridge in 1951 people flocked to see the Museum's display of Machinery 100 Years Ago. This old equipment sat only metres away from the very machines that threatened its existence. The countryside was steeped in history yet desperately in need of modernisation.
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Collecting Rural England;

Collecting;

Wellies

Town and Country;Countryside;People;Weather and environment;

Wellies are an essential part of English outdoor clothing. Come rain, flood, hail or snow, wellies will keep your feet warm and dry. These ones were owned and used by Michael Eavis, dairy farmer and founder of Glastonbury Festival. Wellies were designed for people who worked in the countryside, but you're now just as likely to see Kate Moss sporting a pair as a Somerset farmer. Glastonbury Festival turned the humble welly into a fashion item, as newspapers featured celebrities struggling through the infamous mud in their boots. Michael Eavis, has introduced generations of mostly urban festival-goers to a unique version of the countryside. Glastonbury Festival is both town and country, with roads, paths, shops and communities temporarily planted on a patchwork of fields. Michael's own wellies were made in France by Le Chameau. He described them as 'bloody good wellies.'
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Town and Country;

Countryside;

People;

Weather and environment;

Harvest Jug

A Year On the Farm;Arts and crafts;Farming and agriculture;Food and drink;Weather and environment;

This jug was made for the boozy celebration which comes after a successful harvest. The baking sun sits smiling at the centre of a mariner's compass on one side, a fitting design for a jug made in the seafaring county of Devon. The varying hues of orange and yellow are rooted in the spent soil and blazing skies of a hot summer's day. On the opposite side a cockerel sits among flowers, and the zigzag decoration around the neck of the jug is typical of Barnstaple Ware. The designs are all scratched into the glaze, a technique known as 'sgraffiato'. On the back of the jug there is this verse: Harvest is come all busy now in making of the Barley mow if you the Barley mow neglect of Good ale you can not then expect August 1838, John Prouse, Hartland
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A Year On the Farm;

Arts and crafts;

Farming and agriculture;

Food and drink;

Weather and environment;

Salmon Trap

A Year On the Farm;Animals;Food and drink;Health nutrition and medicine;

The best way to trap salmon is to make them trap themselves. So effective is the design of the 'putcher' that it has barely changed in 1000 years. Fishermen on the River Severn would arrange dozens of these traps between sticks buried in the mud of the river and forming a wall. The salmon would then simply swim into the traps, and the fishermen would collect them. Until the 1950s seasonal salmon were caught using basketwork traps like this. They are now more commonly fished year round on special farms. But farmed fish have fewer Omega-3s, which are beneficial to human health, so they are sometimes fed genetically modified cereals to add these extra fatty acids.
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A Year On the Farm;

Animals;

Food and drink;

Health nutrition and medicine;

Shepherds Walking Stick

A Year On the Farm;Arts and crafts;People;

The patience and skill that have been poured into this practical work of art is obvious. That it took years to make is confirmed on the stick itself, which proclaims: 'Carved by a Poor Shepherd in the years 1844 to 1849'. Alongside this, the shepherd artist also names himself as Henry Beecham from Kidlington, Oxfordshire. The stick is also a twin. A near-identical example was carved by his cousin, Thomas Beecham, while he stayed with his uncle for a period. Henry used his time well, learning various shepherd remedies and potions which he sold around the region. His successes allowed him to found the company Beecham's Pills, which would go on to become the multinational SmithKlineBeecham, and is now GlaxoSmithKline. Thomas began his life as a poor shepherd much like Henry, but by his own sharp and entrepreneurial mind he literally went from rags to riches.
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A Year On the Farm;

Arts and crafts;

People;

Picnic Basket

A Year On the Farm;Countryside;Food and drink;

This is an 'En Route' tea-making basket produced by Drew & Co of London probably around 1905. Originally, a basket like this was associated with railway travel, and even the horse drawn carriage. But by the Edwardian era, it was increasingly about the relationship between the motor car and the countryside - going for an afternoon jaunt into the country and having a nice cup of tea in a secluded scenic spot before returning to the clamour of the town.
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A Year On the Farm;

Countryside;

Food and drink;

Mattress

Town and Country;Health nutrition and medicine;Local history;

This mattress was found walled up in a house in Titchfield, Hampshire, and may date from the seventeenth century or earlier. It consists of thick plaits of three, sewn together and made of Carex, a type of sedge. The underneath is fluffy, like carpet pile, and is probably unfinished. Such mattresses were used either for laying out the dead before they were placed in the coffin or for women in childbirth. Unsurprisingly, they would probably have been burnt after use, so this mattress may not have ever been used for either purpose. These mattresses are also commonly found as part of tomb monuments, such as this one of Chaloner Chute (c.1595-1659) at the Vyne Estate in Hampshire. Used for both noble and common monuments, it may be a statement about Death as the great equaliser.
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Town and Country;

Health nutrition and medicine;

Local history;

Man Trap

Making Rural England;Countryside;War and conflict;

This is a trap designed to catch people. Landowners sometimes resorted to man traps in order to catch people trespassing on their land. People trespassed for a variety of reasons; sometimes for poaching - the illegal killing of animals on private land - or sometimes simply for hunting and gathering food to feed their families. After much maiming on the parts of both landowners and trespassers, man traps with teeth were made illegal in 1827. They were replaced by 'humane' man traps, which were designed to trap people without undue damage.
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Making Rural England;

Countryside;

War and conflict;

Giant Teapot

51 Voices;Making Rural England;Arts and crafts;Collecting;Colonialism;Food and drink;

Michael Cardew, Large teapot on iron stand, 1940s
This enormous teapot was designed and made by Michael Cardew at Winchcombe Pottery, Gloucestershire. It was part of the British Council's craft collection and is probably the same iconic teapot that featured in the exhibition of Modern British Crafts held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1942. It was certainly used in later exhibitions of Rural Handicrafts from Great Britain, which toured to Australia and New Zealand in 1946. Cardew himself was a pioneering figure in studio pottery and his work was enormously influential in this mid-century period. Shortly after the teapot was exhibited in these overseas contexts, Cardew's active practice played a part in creative exchanges and developments in West Africa. In 1951, he established a new studio in Abuja, Nigeria. This project went on to inspire future generations of potters across the region. The teapot itself can hold 6 ½ gallons (29.5 litres) of tea, and is supported on a blacksmith-made iron frame. This allows it to be tipped and also manoeuvred thanks to small wheels on its base. It is not just a gimmick but was actually designed to be used at countryside events or at parties held at large country houses. A modern copy of much the same design was produced by Michael Cardew's grandson, Ada Cardew, for a British Council exhibition held in the 1990s. Click here for an online exhibition exploring a new rural institution in Nigeria, G.A.S Foundation, as supported by The MERL in connection with its 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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51 Voices;

Making Rural England;

Arts and crafts;

Collecting;

Colonialism;

Food and drink;

PLASTER CAST HANDS

Making Rural England;Countryside;People;

These are plaster casts of Joseph Arch's hands.

Joseph Arch (1826-1919) was the first person from a labouring background in Britain to become a Member of Parliament, from 1892-1900.

He was also the President of the National Agricultural Labourers Union (1872-1896), the first successful union to be established. He lived in Barford, Warwickshire and worked as a labourer. As the local Primitive Methodist preacher he was skilled at public speaking, which helped him with his union speeches and the hustings during campaigning to become an MP.

We're not entirely sure why these casts of Joseph's hands exist. There is speculation that they were cast as an alternative to a death mask, signifying Joseph's pride in being a labourer. They were, however, cast before Joseph's death. Others have thought that he may have had his hands cast as a study for a waxwork, but again there is little evidence to support the theory.

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Making Rural England;

Countryside;

People;

TURNWREST PLOUGH

Collecting Rural England;Collecting;Farming and agriculture;

In its early years the Museum of English Rural Life toured the nation's many country shows, picking up objects from farmers and the public. This type of plough is called a turn wrest and is commonly found in Kent, where we collected it in 1955. We put it on display at the Shillingford country fair the next year. Next time you're at a country fair keep an eye out for old farm machinery - they can tell you a lot about our rural history.
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Collecting Rural England;

Collecting;

Farming and agriculture;

Ferguson Tractor

Collecting Rural England;Farming and agriculture;

This Ferguson Tractor was found as a mess on a scrapheap by a retired teacher at Rycotewood College. He enlisted the help of students to repair and restore the tractor to working condition. At a later date, it was purchased by The MERL with the help of the Science Museum.

The tractor was probably manufactured in 1948. It is one of the earliest types built by the Standard Motor Company at their Banner Lane plant, Coventry.

Today, the tractor is displayed in The MERL's Collecting Rural England gallery. Plan your free visit to the museum and see this object in person.

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Collecting Rural England;

Farming and agriculture;

Womens Land Army Uniform

Forces For Change;Historical era;War and conflict;

The Women's Land Army (WLA) was created in 1915 to help farmers cope with the shortage of male labour as a result of the First World War. It was brought back into action for the Second World War, at first as voluntary service and then as a form of conscription. Sceptics did not believe that women would be suited to the hard labour involved in farmwork, but the Army of 65,000 Land Girls went on to produce the majority of Britain's food by 1943, happily proved the critics wrong. One such Land Girl was Doreen Thorp, whose uniform this was while she served with the WLA from 1939-1947.
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Forces For Change;

Historical era;

War and conflict;

Flail

Forces For Change;Farming and agriculture;

When you look at a flail, you are looking at the sweat, pain and labour farmworkers endured for hundreds of years. Flails are just two sticks, tied together at one end with leather. One stick would be grasped, and the other swung at corn on a barn floor to separate the grain from the husk through sheer force. This was hard labour, but occupied many people. When the process was simplified with threshing machines it caused riots, as many people were suddenly without a job. Rioters smashed machines to preserve their livelihoods, but ultimately it was the machines that won.
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Forces For Change;

Farming and agriculture;

Suttons Seeds Display Cabinet

Forces For Change;Farming and agriculture;

The soft wooden hues, globes of glass and intricate carving of this display case would not be out of place in a Victorian apothecary. This case, however, is for seeds. The bottom of the case proudly proclaims 'Queen's Seedsmen Reading' - the Queen in question being Victoria, and the Seedsmen being Suttons Seeds company. Famous for inventing the paper seed packet, Suttons led the world in the cultivation, supply, marketing and distribution of bulbs and seeds in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This case advertises the different varieties of grasses the company produced, and was bought at a farm sale in Oxfordshire by the donor in 1950.
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Forces For Change;

Farming and agriculture;

Miller’s Wagon

51 Voices;Wagon Walk;Animals;Food and drink;People;Transport;

Meadcroft of Welwyn et. al., Miller’s wagon, circa 1880
This wagon was acquired by the Museum in 1951. Its survival is testament to the mid-century drive of collectors who sought to rescue rural heritage. Vehicles like these came under threat during the interwar period when other modes of transport came to the fore. This was compounded by the Second World War and by post-war modernisation. Some wagons were modified to be towed by tractors, many were scrapped, and others simply left to rot. In 1953, one village reputedly planned to mark the Coronation with an enormous bonfire of wagons. Out with the old and in with the new. This particular example was owned by a man called Benjamin Cole. He ran the Codicote and Kimpton mills near Luton, on the Hertfordshire border. He had to abandon both sites because the River Mimram became too low to power the millstones. He also owned Hyde Mill, which drew water from another river and was located near the railway. This was advantageous as flour could be transported to urban centres more easily. The road to the railway was steep and this wagon would often carry three tons. Two horses were needed to pull it when fully loaded. The wagon was made by Meadcroft, using an axle by Stenning, and with a cover by Peddar of Luton. It features a six-pointed star on its main body. Today we largely associate this symbol with the Star of David, a symbol of Judaism. However, the same mark is also known as a 'brewer's star'. Its placement here may suggest that the wagon had another role, perhaps linked to brewing. These distinct meanings likely share a common origin, stemming from the use of such symbols as a protective mark. Read more about the history and careful conservation this wagon in a piece by Collections Care Manager Fred van de Geer, written as part of The MERL’s 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices. 51 Voices logo.
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51 Voices;

Wagon Walk;

Animals;

Food and drink;

People;

Transport;

Wagoner’s Belt

A Year On the Farm;Arts and crafts;Farming and agriculture;People;

This belt was given to a wagoner on his retirement, in recognition of his great skill. There was once a strict hierarchy on farms. Horsemen were at the top and worked with wagons and ploughs. Everyone knew their rank, referring to each other with terms such as 'first man' or 'fourth boy'.
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A Year On the Farm;

Arts and crafts;

Farming and agriculture;

People;